THE LIGHTHOUSE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Robert Eggers

Stars: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse is the new psychological drama from director Robert Eggers, who gave us the gothic horror of the creepy The Witch in 2015. Set in a lighthouse on a remote and barren island in New England late in the 19th century The Lighthouse is a claustrophobic tale of isolation, frailty, madness and toxic masculinity.

Winslow (Robert Pattinson, best known for the YA Twilight series) is a former timber worker from Canada who has changed careers following an unexplained tragedy, and has been sent to the island as an apprentice to learn the trade from veteran lighthouse keeper Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe). The work is physically arduous and backbreaking, the daily routine repetitive, and the storms that regularly batter the island fierce.

But the harsh conditions on the island soon begin to take its toll. Winslow is given over to disturbing visions of mermaids, and he is also attacked by a fairly vicious and unusually aggressive seagull. Meanwhile Wake refuses to let him enter the lighthouse tower itself. Conflict erupts between the two men as they bicker and argue, but their heated exchanges are tempered with frequent bouts of drunkenness, singing, dancing and swapping tall tales.

The sophomore film from Eggers, The Lighthouse is an allegory about madness, claustrophobia, loneliness and mateship. Eggers cowrote the script with his brother Max, and this bleak disturbing tale has been loosely based on the real life tragedy of the Smalls Lighthouse in which one keeper died during a fierce storm in 1801. It has also been inspired largely by the writings of Herman Melville, best known as the author of Moby Dick, and the seafaring tales of Robert Louis Stevenson. The material is also layered with plenty of literary allusions, which many in the audience will recognise.

The Lighthouse is essentially a two hander which centres around the volatile interaction between the two men, which at times borders on the homoerotic. Eggers elicits strong performances from both Pattinson and Dafoe who play off one another superbly. Pattinson buries his movie star looks beneath a haunted and gaunt physique, facial hair, and a ghostly pallor to play the taciturn Winslow. Dafoe brings plenty of bluster to his intense performance as the salty old veteran who has obviously spent far too much time alone with his own company. 

Eggers and his Oscar nominated cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who also worked on Eggers’ The Witch) have deliberately shot the film in black and white, which adds to the bleak tone. They have also shot the film in the boxy Academy ratio which further adds to the oppressive feel. They imbue the desolate landscape with an air of menace. The jarring, discordant and percussive score from Mark Korven further adds to the uneasy atmosphere that Eggers has created. Sound designer Damian Volpe has done a superb job with his soundscape, and that ominous foghorn that sounds throughout the film also adds to the increasingly uneasy mood.

Eggers has structured his film with lots of oblique symbolism, metaphors and striking visuals. The lighthouse itself was specially built from scratch by the production team, but it looks authentically weather beaten. The Lighthouse does not follow the traditional three act narrative structure. Not everything is clearly spelled out, which will frustrate the more casual filmgoer. The Lighthouse is a deeply disturbing journey into madness. It is decidedly art house in nature and is not a film that will appeal to everybody.

★★☆

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