Review: ‘The Lighthouse’ Is A Gloomy, Smelly Descent Into Madness

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse, a look at the descent into madness for characters portrayed by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.

Among the many feelings and thoughts I had while watching Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, the follow-up to his acclaimed horror feature debut, The Witch, I couldn’t stop focusing on how foul everything must have smelled during production. There’s an evident unease The Lighthouse is supposed to create for the viewer, but I was easily most affected by all the dirt and grit layering the walls and the characters during this experience. That’s not a dig at the film either, but rather an indication of its success. As I observed two men become more consumed by insanity, I was only worn down further by the intensity of their surroundings. All of this added up to a peculiar success.

The film opens with a harsh and ominous bit of music from composer Mark Korven, evoking old monster movies, of all things. As an audience, we are dropped in immediately with two lighthouse keepers beginning their time isolated on an island blasted continuously by the ocean. They are said to be on duty for the next several weeks. These two men are the veteran lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), and newcomer Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), who has been moving from job to job.

With time pressing forward, and the tension between these two men never letting up, The Lighthouse is less about telling a traditional story, and more an observation of the downward spiral involving Thomas and Ephraim. We witness them grow mad, as they are faced with their loneliness and fears. Whatever pleasantries they exchange only becomes offset by what they each hold back from each other. In essence, this is a psychological study of two people trapped in the worst kind of experiment. The only difference is how nature is the one who decides for them. Or does it?

Perhaps something more powerful is at work. One could no doubt see how the works of Herman Melville and H.P. Lovecraft clash to bring this feature’s story to life. At times, the imagery we see goes further away from the realms of the old-fashioned black and white cinematography than one may expect. But how much of that is purely cerebral? Are Ephraim’s visions of mermaids and giant squid tentacles an actual reality, or is his lousy luck regarding seagulls something that has pushed nature to teach him a lesson in the worst of ways?

To further bring this cinematic vision to life, Eggers has not only chosen to film in black and white but present the film in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, recalling the early films of Fritz Lang, among others. It’s a smart move for a movie already attempting to have such a deliberate sense of place and style through the use of shadows and closeups. With a nearly square frame, The Lighthouse can truly confine the audience with these men. If we are indeed witnessing a psychotic break, there’s nothing to miss. In capturing that sense of isolation, what better way to do it than to close off the cinematic world around these characters?

It all proves to show how capable Eggers in as a craftsman. For a second time in a row, here’s a film presenting a particular place and time, and using what he needs to make it full of dread and misery. Co-written by Eggers and his brother Max Eggers, whatever story these two had in mind, it has come to life as a sort of deliberate power move to show the lengths of one’s imagination, after breaking through with such a stunning debut feature.

As noted, the whole production looks dirty, and from what I have read, this was not an easy film to make. It shows. Regardless of how well Dafoe and Pattinson got along off-camera, they seem like two guys fed up with everything involved in working at this filthy lighthouse, only to be prodded further by the weather, random visions, and each other.

That in mind, The Lighthouse is far more fun than The Witch. Despite the harsh tones, the film is practically a dark comedy about madness, complete with a few broad physical moments. If it gets in your head, some aspects can disturb you. However, the interactions between Dafoe and Pattinson, let alone certain circumstances surrounding the lighthouse, allow the film to break the tension on occasion. There’s also a lot of Dafoe’s fisherman jargon and constant farting to keep in mind.

As one would expect from a film with only two performers, The Lighthouse becomes an actor’s showcase. Pattinson is the more strait-laced of the two, discovering a lot of what we find out and doing his best to contend with the strange nature of his co-worker, let alone the cabin fever he develops. Dafoe, on the other side of things, goes full into his deeply textured lighthouse keeping persona. He delivers the sort of intensity you get from the larger-than-life Dafoe character we’ve often seen in movies, which is as entertaining and watchable as it needs to be here.

Once again, Eggers and his crew have gone far lengths to develop a film unlike a lot of what is seen in the sphere of genre features today. Thanks to a calculated mood and pacing, The Lighthouse allows the viewer to absorb a lot of the details best emphasizing what kind of horrendous situation this turns into for these men, as well as the fractured state of mind that develops for both of them. Additionally, thanks to a commitment to the time, and a quirky sense of humor, the film is never less than interesting. It’s bizarre, no doubt, but that wildness is harnessed well in putting on display a plunge into madness.

8
Great
Written by
Aaron is a movie fanatic and loves talking about such things…a lot. He is from Orange County, California, but earned a degree or two at UC Santa Barbara. He describes himself as a film reviewer, writer, podcaster, video game player, comic book reader, disc golfer, and a lefty. His mind is full of film knowledge and random trivia, but he is always open to learning more, whether it’s through box office stats, reviewing Blu-rays from The Criterion Collection or simply hearing first hand from filmmakers and others about various productions and behind-the-scenes tidbits.

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