Robert Eggers’ sophomore follow-up to 2015’s The Witch is a gradual descent into madness; a journey not for the faint of heart.
The Lighthouse follows two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s. As their time on the island progresses, their patience wears thin and an obsession develops around the brilliant beacon of the lighthouse.
Visually, the film is stunning. Shot in black and white with a 4:3 ratio, the cinematography grips its subject and holds tight. Entire monologues are held with an unblinking eye, driving the incredible performances from stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe deep through so you can feel their intensity in your bones.
As The Lighthouse progresses, the camera echoes the characters’ slip on sanity by increasingly leaning on dutch angles, putting the audience ill-at-ease. The lighting – as with The Witch – appears to be all done naturally; scenes are awash with natural daylight and shadowed by the light of a single lantern in a dark room. For a film that is built around a growing obsession with a beacon of light, every change in lighting feels emphasized, particularly in the stark black and white coloring.
The imagery found within The Lighthouse is entwined in beautiful tableaux seeping with symbolism. Maritime superstitions and mythology flow throughout the film, washing over the action and crashing into the story like waves, pulling the characters under.
Robert Pattinson digs in with a tortured performance that puts DiCaprio’s in The Revenant to shame. He physically toils scene after scene after scene, exhausting the audience and drumming up immediate empathy for his struggles. Both Pattinson and Dafoe leave it all on the table; they suffer greatly for the sake of the film, and it’s incredible to watch. Their collaborative commitment to constantly one-up each other on the scale of insanity is wildly impressive.
Dafoe is completely lost in his character, so much so that his strong accent and mumbling dialogue can be difficult to suss out at times. There’s one particularly earth-shattering monologue that reverberates on screen that – thankfully – is spat out with such passion that it’s much clearer than some of his other ramblings. Though it can be challenging to track exactly what he’s saying, he’s always easy to follow thanks to Dafoe’s crystal clear performance.
When it comes to monologues, The Lighthouse is blessed with some real knockouts. Pattinson and Dafoe rise to the challenge and deliver gripping performances that speak to their raw talent as actors. Eggers knows the level of skill he’s working with and captures their tirades with the utmost respect, allowing them to flex their artistic muscles.
Surprisingly, The Lighthouse actually has some moments of real humor peppered in. These bits of levity are drawn from the overall absurdity of the film and build on the relationship between our two main (and only) characters — though they’re not exactly jovial. Their constant battle turns from a one-sided verbal thrashing to a hypnotic dance of toxic camaraderie.
Eggers has proven himself to be one of the most exciting directors working in genre cinema today. The Lighthouse has so much bubbling under the surface, and as the film progresses, it boils over and floods every inch of the screen with unhinged madness. Eggers is extraordinarily talented and we can’t wait to see what he does next.
All that said, The Lighthouse is not for everyone. It’s definitely a slow burn, and it may be a bit too off-kilter for some audiences. But if you approach the film with patience and an open mind, there is a lot to take away. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s one you won’t soon forget.