The Lighthouse is a masterpiece.
If you're expecting The Lighthouse to be some carbon copy of director Robert Eggers' 2015 indie horror breakthrough The Witch, you'll either find yourself disappointed or you'll find yourself shifting your cinematic perspective by film's end.
The Lighthouse is a different kind of cinematic beast, occasionally horror yes, but more often this shapeshifting work of wonder that takes labyrinthian shifts around a variety of genres and toward genres yet unnamed and undiscovered.
The Lighthouse is dark and lovely, horrifying yet often hilarious, and a two character study with two characters you are unlikely to fit anytime soon.
Set in 1890's New England, The Lighthouse stars Robert Pattinson as Efraim Winslow, a former lumberjack turned something altogether mysterious and undefinable. He's shown up for a several week stint on this rocky, isolated island just off the New England coast to work at the beckon call of lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe).
The minute you see Thomas Wake you forget anything about Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is so completely immersive here that it's mesmerizing. He's every seafaring cliche' known to man, from the scraggly and scratchy beard to the maritime superstitions to the salty language of an isolated soul, yet in Dafoe's hands he's nothing resembling a cliche' and he's everything that you want him to be and more. So much more.
There's an immediate tension between Wake and Winslow, though it's hard not to imagine that there'd be an immediate tension between Wake and just about anyone. Winslow is suspicious of his new charge and pushes him beyond the point of reason then pushes him some more.
The Lighthouse is a two character film save for the brief distraction of one particularly intriguing character who enters the scenario either real or imagined, yet it's hard to imagine two more captivating characters in 2019 cinema than Wake and Winslow.
Wake is a territorial sort and The Lighthouse is his territory. Winslow is allowed to be present, but it's clearly on Wake's terms and it's more than a little begrudgingly. Wake's presence jangles as ominously as the ever present ring of keys he clings to as if his life depends on it. The light itself? It's his and Winslow dare not go toward it.
As one might expect, The Lighthouse itself is a perfectly constructed place of nightmares and fantasies woven together into some sort of Gordian Knot. There's little privacy for the two men, a single bedroom with two beds and a bucket for the usual bodily functions. Alcatraz likely offered more luxury. The two share meals, Wake constantly taunting Winslow with alcohol that for the most part Winslow resists much to the chagrine of the increasingly suspicious Wake.
If you're a more casual moviegoer, you may not quite understand what is meant but letterbox presentation. Trust me, you've become accustomed to it and it's the usual way of making movies these days. Eggers and D.P. Jarin Blaschke take a detour, not surprisingly, from letterbox and craft a film that is even more claustrophobic and intimidating and suffocating.
Pattinson's Winslow initially feels like a man who's more just a guy out of sorts, there's a past there maybe but he's a lonely chap and we watch how that loneliness gets pushed and prodded by Wake. Wake seems to intuitively know every button and push every button. Winslow, for the most part, simply takes it.
The Lighthouse changes in tone, at times rather quickly, from horror to drama to comedy to suffocating suspense and even more than a little cinematic stillness. It's mesmerizing, precise filmmaking by Eggers capturing the essence of seafaring ways cast alongside the starkness of humanity and something close to a 19th century toxic masculinity.
The fact that we might be tempted to call Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe a cinematic mismatch only adds to the intrigue and force behind their performances here as Winslow and Wake. They both serve up masterful performances here, though my gut tells me that Dafoe is the most likely to be recognized come year's end awards season and Pattinson, doing perhaps his career best work, is likely to fall a wee bit short of deserved supporting actor acclaim.
The Lighthouse is the kind of film that gets talked about for days on end after a viewing. Eggers refuses easy answers and is comfortable painting more question than answers. "Figure it out," he seems to be daring us. The Lighthouse feels like a thematic sibling to The Witch, though it's entirely different and so much more.
Mark Korven's original score is magnificent, at times industrial sea noise meets emotional chaos meets fractured humanity all constructed within one brilliant musical framework. Louise Ford's editing is exact and precisely matched to Eggers' directorial effort, while enough kudos cannot be given for Craig Lathrop's production design along with Matt Likely's art direction, Ian Greig's set decoration, and Linda Muir's magnificent costume design.
The Lighthouse is easily one of 2019's most unique, original, and rewarding motion pictures. With award-worthy performances by Dafoe and Pattinson and year-best production work along with Eggers' marvelous dialogue, The Lighthouse may not resonate with everyone but for those who enter its world it'll be a film that demands repeated viewings and ongoing discussion. It's that rare film that satisfies emotionally and intellectually and in ways you won't be able to verbalize.
The Lighthouse is a masterpiece.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic