The Lighthouse (15)
Director: Robert Eggers
Screenplay: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson
Review: RJ Bland
There have been a handful of film-makers over the last five or six years who have burst onto the horror scene with acclaimed genre features. Jordan Peele (Get Out), Veronika Franz (Goodnight Mommy), Ari Aster (Hereditary), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) and David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) are all prime examples of directors who have come to the attention of genre fans, eager to see the crowning of new horror Kings and Queens. To be fair, we're always on the lookout for the next 'horror master'. The thing is, that hype can be a dangerous thing and invariably, some film-makers struggle to go on and match the dizzying heights of their breakout film. It's the truly great ones that can make a habit of it. Another name to add to the list is Robert Eggers, whose bleak period horror The Witch turned out to be one of the best films of 2016. The fact he was only in his early 30's when he made the film made it an even more remarkable achievement. We've had to wait a long time for his sophomore effort but it's only added to the sense of anticipation. When The Lighthouse was announced last year, it sounded like an intriguing concept and a bold sort of film to attempt to make. An ambiguous looking black and white two-hander set on a remote lighthouse at the end of the 19th Century doesn't sound like the easiest sell to producers and audiences. But he who dares wins and all that eh...
A young man named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives on a remote island off the coast of New England to start a four week stint as a 'Wickie' (Lighthouse Keeper). He's not alone though. His companion (and supervisor) is a rather cantankerous old sailor type called Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Suffice to say, it's a wet, dreary and monotonous existence and the two men quarrel and bicker at almost every opportunity it seems. Winslow soon starts having troubling visions of tentacled creatures, mermaids and starts to develop a fascination with the fresnal lens (the light at the top of the lighthouse). Is he imagining all of this or is there something else otherworldly going on? To make matters worse, he is harassed by a one eyed gull and despite his supervisors warning that it's bad luck to kill a seabird, Ephraim does exactly that. After this, things only seem to get worse...
Regardless of whether or not you enjoy The Lighthouse or not, you have to marvel at the sheer ambition of it. It's impressive a film like this even got made to be honest but that's mainly down to the clout and talent of Director Robert Eggers. The Lighthouse may not achieve the widespread popularity of his debut feature but from an artistic and technical perspective, it's every bit as brilliant.
The Lighthouse thrusts you right into the bleakness of it's cold, lonely coastal setting and never eases up. Sirens blare, the wind screams and mighty waves crash against rocks. Inside, things are only slightly less drab and dank too. It's an assault on the senses and Egger's decision to film it in a 1.19:1 ration only makes the whole thing even more nauseatingly claustrophobic and contained. It's a challenging and at times, uncomfortable watch – but the rewards are worth it.
Although the screenplay (by Robert Eggers and his brother Max) is a thing of salty beauty itself, The Lighthouse is a film that could be viewed silently and still be effective. That's partly down to Egger's eye for detail and fussiness but a lot of the credit has to go to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who makes the monochrome as captivating and oppressive as humanely possible. It's up for debate whether The Lighthouse is even really a true horror film, but some of the Lovecraftian visuals mean that it'd be difficult to deny it. There are moments of levity amongst the chaos and several laugh out loud moments. But this is a film about madness ultimately, but a type of madness that feels mythological almost. A fondness for folky superstitious stuff is evident in both Egger's features to date and by the end, there are a multitude of different ways events of The Lighthouse can be perceived. And in our book, all of them work.
It's the performances of Dafoe and Pattinson that are the real shining lights of The Lighthouse though. Dafoe is gloriously grumpy as the Captain Ahab sort and there are scenes where he delivers speeches in one take (without pausing for breath!) that are quite astonishing. Pattinson grows from strength to strength the further the film goes on and the darker the film gets. Their chemistry is a thing of cold, hard beauty.
There is a reason that The Lighthouse might not garner universal praise from audiences and that's ultimately because it's a demanding, queasy and equivocal viewing experience. If you're expecting a film laden with shocks and scares, you will be disappointed too. The film's horror comes from a more subtle and undefined place. However that's also one of it's greatest strengths.