Director: Robert Eggers
Writers: Max Eggers, Robert Eggers
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman
Runtime: 109 mins
MPAA Rating: R
Robert Eggers is not a household name as far as directors go. He will be very soon. Part of the reason he is relatively unknown is that he has only directed one other film, 2015’s The Witch. While it was disliked by many traditional horror fans for being slow and devoid of overt scares, I particularly enjoyed the way it steadily constructs a sense of psychological dread. I get bored quickly when a horror film devolves into contrived set ups for cheap jump scares, and I appreciated that Eggers showcased considerable restraint and had a tight grasp on atmosphere, aesthetics, and pacing. Needless to say, I was looking forward to his subsequent feature-length endeavor. While The Witch is mostly straight-forward in concept, The Lighthouse takes everything to a whole new level.
The poster tells you almost everything that I will reveal about the plot. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) are two lighthouse keepers taking their month-long shift on a tiny New England island in the late 1800s. The elder Wake is the experienced, sailor-mouthed “wickie” (jargon for the caretaker of the light itself) while the younger Winslow performs the bulk of the manual labor under Wake’s tutelage. The temperamental dynamic between these two men of different natures is the centerpiece of the film. Wake crassly emanates his seasoned nautical wisdom using Melvillian elocution and is frighteningly irascible when it comes to insubordination. In both appearance and ability, Dafoe is perfectly cast as he fiercely commands the screen in nearly every scene, menacingly delivering the script’s most memorable dialogue. Pattinson’s Winslow is reserved and moody, and his entire persona feels burdened and suppressed both physically and psychologically. Though quiet, Winslow is articulate and not a pushover, leading to the turbulent back-and-forths with Wick that make the film hugely entertaining. Both performances are nothing short of phenomenal.
Just as in The Witch, Eggers restraint behind the camera elevates the presentation quality considerably, and I can confidently say that it is one of his defining characteristics. The setting and plot outline is visually established entirely without dialogue, and a large portion of the background is left for the viewer to surmise. Eggers slowly and deliberately creates his desired atmosphere, regularly dropping in moments of head-scratching insanity that need to be seen to be appreciated. All the while, he refuses to directly answer the vexing questions that the audience most assuredly has. Though consistently unsettling, The Lighthouse also manages to have speckles of humor without compromising tone. I am not even going to attempt to delve into this film thematically before seeing it a second time. I will just say that it pulls you every which way. It drops you into moments of surreal terror and pulls you right back out into what appears to be stark reality. The film seamlessly transitions from periods of abundant clarity to sequences where you have no idea what is happening; it is as if you are on a boat at sea that is entering and exiting a raging storm. It is unlike any other movie I have ever seen in how it made me feel.
The film has thoroughly captivating aesthetics. The singular island location is clearly laid out and each element of the setting down to individual rooms is characterized almost as thoroughly as Wade and Winslow. Every piece of the production design appears purposeful and is authentic for the time period. Another aspect of The Witch that is also evident here is attention to detail with speech and accents; Eggers seems to be particularly keen on keeping such facets of the presentation as accurate as possible, and it is reflected in both the script and performances alike. Most importantly, all of the dialogue, written by Robert Eggers and his brother Max, feels natural and necessary which is a sign of a top-notch script. The black-and-white color palette contributes to the film’s rustic nature, and makes for some simply gorgeous static shots defined by a sort of bleak beauty. The choice to shoot in an extremely narrow aspect ratio (1.19:1) subtly contributes to the feeling of claustrophobia and isolation of the setting while also practically serving to make vertical structures (e.g. a lighthouse) imposing. A variety of cinematographic techniques are used to powerful effect, and I cannot think of a single scene with which I could take issue with the camerawork. Layered atop all of the visual delights is eerie sound design combined with a thunderous score from composer Mark Korven. In every technical regard, this film is crafted with maximum proficiency, and it only enhances the tempestuous and mesmerizing events that are unfolding.
After leaving the theater, my head was still spinning as if I had just experienced a hallucination, but I genuinely feel as though I witnessed a classic. Without a doubt, Dafoe and Pattinson have given career-defining performances, and I have not seen a performance close to matching either this year. Not everyone will like this movie as it is layered and not forthright with its meaning; additionally, if you are easily scared or a child, do not see it. Everyone else, go see this movie whenever you get a chance. It is unforgettable cinema, and I hope to watch it again in the near future.
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