There isn’t another movie like Robert Eggers’s new film “The Lighthouse.” The closest thing I can think to compare it to is the director’s first feature length film, “The Witch,” which was released back in 2015. What that tells me is that Eggers has a distinct and inimitable style that is evident in every frame and aspect of his films. Like “The Witch,” which was branded as more of an overt horror film, “The Lighthouse” takes its time to immerse its viewer in the rustic, grim world in which it lives only to throw its characters into the grips of chaos and violence.
“Grim” is genuinely the best word I can think of to describe “The Lighthouse.” The story follows Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) as he arrives on a remote lighthouse island to study as a lighthouse watchmen under the tutelage of Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), an eccentric, embittered old man with a mysterious origin. The two get to know each other over the course of four weeks, and as they go about their duties on the island, they grow to hate one another and drive each other mad. It’s a feel-good movie for sure. Much of what happens in the movie, especially later on, is wildly fun to watch unfold, so I won’t give too many details about the plot, but that’s all you really need to know.
Now let’s get into what makes this movie as amazing as it is. First: the performances. This movie is, for the most part, focused on two people: Pattinson and Dafoe. For the majority of the one hour and 49 minute runtime, at least one of them is on screen. This movie lives in its script and their performances. Pattinson has come a long way in reclaiming his reputation following his role as Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” series. If you haven’t seen some of the great films he’s done since then like “Good Time,” then this is a perfect opportunity to gauge his range. He was perfectly cast as this solemn, young drifter who is just looking to find a place where he can forget about his life.
Dafoe, on the other hand, perfectly combines the gruffness you would expect from an old lighthouse watchman and a chaotic, almost slap-stick comedy that feels both out of place and entirely appropriate. He sounds like a salty sea captain with his harsh British tones contrasting Pattinson’s strong New England accent.
The movie is surprisingly hilarious. Though I will say most of the complexities involved in the story’s heavy symbolism went over my head, there is enough there to understand and enough jarring yet legitimately hilarious humor to keep the viewer interested. It’s not a movie that seems like it will be as funny as it is, but there are a few standout scenes (namely, when the duo argues about the quality of Wake’s cooking and when Winslow savagely beats a seagull to death) that embody the dark humor that runs through this film.
Beyond performances and characters, the tone and cinematography of this movie were fascinating. It’s shot in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio on 35 mm film and is black and white. The majority of the first half of the movie sees Winslow performing a variety of old-timey chores. There’s little dialogue, but between the fascinating cinematography that consists of interesting framing and shot composition, the mundanity of these tasks is conveyed while still being entertaining.
There’s also a sense of unease that this helps to create, furthered by the excellent sound design of the film. There is the lighthouse horn’s almost constant, loud blaring at a variety of volumes and the perpetual sound of pounding rain or crashing waves with a grainy sound filter that matches the graininess of the visuals. Between the long periods of silence and the sudden bursts of chaotic noise or visual stimulus, I always felt somewhat on edge and never quite sure of what was going to happen next.
This movie is certainly not for everyone, in the same way that “The Witch” isn’t. It’s a slow burn, but if what I’ve said about it so far entices you, there’s a good chance that you will like this movie as much as I did. I’m looking forward to watching it again and unpacking it a bit more.