Driven by its stars' maniacal performances, The Lighthouse makes for an impeccably crafted, though thematically uneven, blend of horror and humor.
There are moments throughout Robert Eggers' feature directing debut, The Witch, where it feels like the film is on the verge of transforming from a tense horror drama into a full-blown dark comedy. Eggers finally takes the dive with his sophomore project, The Lighthouse, delivering a movie that's as much a twisted satire of machismo as it is another gothic period psychodrama in the vein of The Witch. And though the film is guilty of being a little too in love with its own stylized bizarreness, it's an operatic work of madness that rivals (and perhaps surpasses) Ari Aster's Midsommar as 2019's most WTF title. Driven by its stars' maniacal performances, The Lighthouse makes for an impeccably crafted, though thematically uneven, blend of horror and humor.
Set on a secluded island off the New England coast in the 1890s, The Lighthouse revolves around an elderly lighthouse keeper (William Dafoe) and the mysterious younger man (Robert Pattinson) hired to assist him for the next month. Despite their differences, the pair manage to get along well enough for the majority of their designated time together. However, just before the latter is due to ship off, the two are trapped by a violent sea storm and forced to wait it out with one another. Faced with their solitude and dwindling rations, the men struggle to maintain a grip on their sanity, even as the line between reality and hallucination grows ever blurrier.
Much like The Witch, the craftsmanship in The Lighthouse is second to none. With its industrial sound effects (including, Mark Korven's menacingly booming score), suffocating black and white photography, and dreamlike narrative logic, The Lighthouse evokes David Lynch's monochrome nightmare Eraserhead, as well as the cosmic terror of H.P. Lovecraft and the silent expressionist cinema of F.W. Murnau (Eggers is an admitted Nosferatu fanboy, after all), right down to its vintage square box aspect ratio. It's also lavishly furnished by production designer Craig Lathrop, who fills the titular set piece and the characters' living quarters with all manner of interesting props and knickknacks. As was true of Eggers' first film as director, The Lighthouse excels at immersing audiences in its historical backdrop and isolated setting, from the costumes and scenery to the coarse yet authentic dialogue (which, as the credits reveal, Eggers and his cowriter/brother Max based on the writings of real-life lighthouse keepers and, naturally, Herman Melville).
Dafoe, in particular, relishes every one of his lines in The Lighthouse, and he and Pattinson seem to have a blast losing their minds here. This was clearly a physically grueling shoot (the two actors get soaked to the bone, wrestle each other, crawl through the dirt - and that's not touching on the NSFW stuff), but it pays off and really informs the warped dynamic between the film's characters. Their relationship is fascinating and funny in near-equal measure; as with so many roommates, their disagreements range from reasonable - Pattinson has to do all the back-breaking chores while Dafoe gazes lovingly at "the light" - to petty, like Pattinson's rage over Dafoe's, well, flatulence (yes, The Lighthouse includes an amusing running fart gag). They're like a cross between rivals and chums caught in a multi-generational bromance - one that involves its share of intoxicated soul-bearing, and possibly gaslighting. As a result, The Lighthouse makes for a captivating treatise on masculinity whenever their interactions are at the forefront.
It's the story where things start to get messy, though. There's just not a whole lot to The Lighthouse's plot, and the film's pacing suffers for it as it progresses further and further along. Ultimately, Dafoe and Pattinson's interplay is simply more engaging than The Lighthouse's attempts to prod viewers into wondering what's imagined or real, and if the film's characters might be trapped in a literal purgatory (not merely one of their own making). The problem is that the movie spends too much effort on the latter and increasingly neglects its themes about male identity as its second half plays out, in favor of indulging in one sequence after another of its leads becoming unhinged. So, when it finally does return to the idea that Dafoe and Pattinson's seafarers have been locked in a power struggle this whole time, it comes across more as a secondary thought and not a grand conclusion.
For these reasons, The Lighthouse will probably be more divisive and niche in its appeal than The Witch (which, admittedly, is saying something). Far from being a tension-fueled and creepy folktale in the vein of Eggers' debut, The Lighthouse is more of a horror-comedy by way of a silent film homage - not to mention, yet another addition to Pattinson and Dafoe's collective body of just plain weird movies. Eggers still has an issue with favoring style over clarity in his work, but it's nice to see him developing a distinct voice after only two films and finding ways to explore themes about gender (masculinity especially) that, while flawed, are compelling all the same. And once again, it bears repeating: you're unlikely to see a movie this fall that leaves you wondering what, exactly, just happened quite like this strange and moody tale of cabin fever, life at sea, and men with terrific facial hair does.
The Lighthouse is now playing in semi-limited release. It is 109 minutes long and is rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language.
- The Lighthouse (2019) release date: Oct 18, 2019