By Bradley Lane
Writer-director Robert Eggers’ 2016 debut feature, The Witch, had huge hype from film critics moving into its opening weekend. However, audiences were split on the film, citing its slow pace, miserable tone and a dense, hard to follow script complete with period accurate 17th century accents. Understandably, there was a disconnect between audiences and critics. Egger’s newest film, The Lighthouse, is a near-perfect case study in incorporating popular criticism while maintaining the integrity of his artistic intent.
Set in the late 1800s, two lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow, played by Robert Pattinson, and Thomas Wake, played by Willem Dafoe, are set alone on an island for a month. Slowly, the lighthouse reveals itself to house some mysterious force, causing Winslow to have strange visions. Simultaneously, Winslow’s quiet reserved personality clashes with Wake’s loud, crude, flatulent sailor persona.
Egger’s principle strength, much like his previous film, is its tone. Whereas The Witch had a cut-and-dry depressive tone, The Lighthouse’s tone is wholly original and resistant to classification. As miserable as the setting is, the film is incredibly funny while managing to stay creepy, all the while maintaining a seriousness that signals the film as a meaningful artistic statement.
Despite being presented in black and white with a near 1:1 aspect ratio to invoke a vintage feel, the filming style and technique feels very modern, almost as though it exists outside of time. However, this is not to say The Lighthouse is devoid of clear stylistic influences, most notably Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shinning. The gravely beach setting, stark black-and-white cinematography and emphasis on sexuality invoke Persona’s strongest moments, while the unsettling character work is pure Kubrick worship.
The presentation is only the surface of what makes The Lighthouse a standout of 2019. Robert and Max Egger’s script is teeming with clever dialogue, smart reincorporation and literary illusions. It also supports a multitude of interpretations, so if you enjoy movies with concrete answers, this one is decidedly not for you.
All these elements culminate in perfect conditions for Pattinson and Dafoe to flex their acting chops. Pattinson disappears into his role, and becomes genuinely frightening while maintaining audience empathy, which is an incredibly fine line to walk. Despite a strong performance and being in a film with only two major characters, Pattinson is still not the best performance of the film. Dafoe gives a career best performance as a larger-than-life salty sea dog type. His monologues are mesmerizing and cements Dafoe as one of the best actors working today.
The Lighthouse is a wholly original thrill ride that maintains its high art status, while still not being above a fart joke or two. -41/2/5 stars