Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
In the late 19th century, a man by the name of Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is sent to serve a contract as a lighthouse keeper along with his supervisor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) for four weeks on a remote island.
Robert Eggers’ 2016 directorial debut The Witch was a masterclass in atmospheric horror. An ominous and highly ambiguous work of cinema that elicited just as much terror from a transcendental lack of space as its more overtly supernatural elements did, both visually and thematically. His eagerly anticipated second feature, The Lighthouse, takes the sensibilities Eggers displayed and utilised in ‘The Witch’ and drives them to their most extreme conclusion.
If The Witch culminated in the breakdown of sanity brought upon by being isolated from the outside world, The Lighthouse starts at that same point. From the opening frame, Eggers creates a clear dissonance between the experiences of the characters and any sense of a mentally stable reality.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe go a bit mad in The Lighthouse
Each on-screen element, from the framing to the editing and even the physical performances of Pattinson and Dafoe themselves, are placed to paint a portrait of a story that not only loses its grip on reality but arguably never had one to begin with.
However, it is not just the characters experiencing a lapse of sanity. Eggers intent with The Lighthouse is to push the audience to the very edge of saneness alongside the two lone keepers. The constant crashing of waves and pouring of rain is an ever-present aspect of the films sound design. Its claustrophobic cinematography and isolating compositions make you feel trapped within the edges of the screen.
All of this comes long before the movie’s surreal imagery comes into play. The longer the two men remain isolated on the rock, the more deeply Eggers delves into their deteriorating mental state. Viewers of The Witch will not be surprised at Eggers refusal to explain the oddities he presents in The Lighthouse. Whether imagined or not, the abstract visuals experienced by the main characters reflect a loosening grip on reality and Eggers direction is unrelenting in its ability to place you right at the heart of that delirium.
The Lighthouse is a surrealist nightmare, in a good way
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Many films deal in the world of the absurd but ultimately feel empty. Eggers employs a number of storytelling methods to avoid this. Firstly his film displays clear intent and purpose in how it displays its surrealism. Watching The Lighthouse feels like you are watching someone else’s nightmare. In a parade of sequences that are as frightening as they are bizarre, Eggers relates these terrors to the grounded fears of his protagonist.
Those fears are not all drawn from a single source either. The Lighthouse features great variety in terms of the tone and nature of its terror. Whether displaying the visceral shock in the increasingly erratic behaviour of the two men or the deeper existential dread of its overwhelming isolation, Eggers movie features a spectrum of horror that it traverses throughout its runtime.
This ties into the movie’s structure, which deliberately and delicately builds towards a culmination. Rather than feel repetitive or monotonous, The Lighthouse gradually escalates in ferocity and intensity to a point where none the narrative turns simply feel like the natural progression to an already deranged story.
Robert Eggers’ film is a scary laughing matter
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All of this may create the impression that Eggers has crafted an unrelentingly bleak and depressing picture. But that is not the case. For all its insanity, perhaps the biggest surprise in watching The Lighthouse is how hilarious the film is. Unafraid of evoking laughter as well as terror, the movie finds plenty of humour in the absurd and uncomfortable interactions between Dafoe and Pattinson.
As strange as it sounds, it’s a film that reminds you that comedy and horror can often be built from the same foundations. The boundaries between the two are never clear cut through the movie, often blurring the lines between what is funny and what is frightening just as it does with reality itself.
Pattinson and Dafoe are clearly well aware of this delusion of tone themselves, as their performances lean into the more overtly comedic sensibilities just as the direction does. Dafoe in particular plays Wake with an almost cartoonish wit. His mannerisms are frequently bizarre but always captivating.
From his dialect to his physicality, everything about Dafoe paints a portrait of a weathered man who long ago distanced himself from the rest of the world. Often the only thing that distinguishes Dafoe’s role between being horrifying or hilarious is the context Eggers places him under.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are brilliant
But of the two, it may be Pattinson who emerges as the standout. In a string of phenomenal recent performances such as Good Time and High Life, Pattinson is at his best yet in The Lighthouse. A performance that, like the film around it, opens as a stoic and unmoving entity but gradually slips deeper into insanity.
Pattinson’s expressions are manic, his movements are ferocious. Every second you spend in his presence makes you less certain not just of Winslow’s sanity, whether we are witnessing him losing it or if he ever had a grasp of it at all.
The movie is rarely indulgent either. Abstract films of this kind quite often fall victim of their own hubris, being so confident in their own meaning that they overstay their welcome. As well as varying in tone and style, Eggers film remains refreshingly minimalist in how it presents and revels in its overall theme. The ambiguity becomes a vital element in the film’s ultimate conceit.
The Lighthouse is deeply unsettling
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In The Lighthouse Wake tells Winslow of numerous superstitions, each inspired by a cautionary fable told with sparing details but clear messaging, passed from one old seaman to another. One could just as easily picture The Lighthouse as another one of those fables, a story of two lighthouse keepers who drove each other insane. What to interpret as literal and what to view as allegorical is left to whoever hears it.
A deeply unsettling and often uncomfortable dive into two warped minds crashing into one another, Robert Eggers second feature is every bit as confident, bold and brilliant as his debut.
What did you make of this review? Are you now going to watch The Lighthouse when it hits cinemas? Let us know in the comments below.
The Lighthouse hits UK cinemas on January 31st, 2020.
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