The Lighthouse review: An insane and trippy nightmare at sea

Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures
Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures /

The Lighthouse, the new horror film from acclaimed director Robert Eggers and starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, is proof that a roommate really can drive you insane if they play their cards right.

Caution: There are some minor spoilers for The Lighthouse in this post.

It’s 2016 and the famed “hipster” film distribution company, A24, has just released the intriguing new horror film, The Witch, to rave reviews from critics and polarizing reviews from general audiences. Critics generally saw merit in The Witch, a tale of a family being cursed by isolation and a witch hellbent on destroying their lives. Meanwhile, audiences found the whole movie to reek of pretentiousness and self-importance.

Despite its mixed reception with audiences, The Witch still managed to carve out a good theatrical run with $40 million to boot. The success led to an increased interest in the film’s writer-director, Robert Eggers, and what he might do next. The success meant that he was more likely to go a bit more crazy with his next project and a presumably bigger budget. But even the most die-hard Witch fans couldn’t have imagined something like The Lighthouse was coming.

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Taking advantage of his newfound fame, Robert Eggers and his brother Max crafted a new story with a smaller cast that would be played by more established movie stars, this time with Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe coming into the fray. Set in a different time period from the 1600s setting of The WitchThe Lighthouse saw the Eggers brothers studying a new historical point in time, from the geographically accurate dialects of the two main characters to the social and economic climate present at the time.

All of this research for a film that is seemingly intent on making as little sense as possible, with the film’s story quickly spiraling out of control. The Lighthouse doesn’t exactly enter new territory with its examination of humanity at wit’s end, but Robert Eggers presents this story in a truly unique fashion made to stand out from every other horror film out right now. But in all its uniqueness, how do the results hold up?

Four weeks

The Lighthouse begins as ominously as a movie can start: a ship carrying two stone-faced men slowly creeps out from the heavy fog as the horn from the approaching lighthouse blares throughout the sea air and water. The two men on the ship are actually the next lighthouse keepers, heading to the island for a month-long shift as they tend to the area’s needs. It will just be the two of them, so they are very much on their own from the beginning of the story.

The two men also couldn’t be more different from each other: The mild-mannered and quiet Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a former lumberjack looking to start fresh with a new career path and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is a grumpy, farting, and experienced seaman who acts as Winslow’s boss in a way. The two personalities are destined to conflict with one another and as their time on the island passes, the men grow from irritable to borderline primal as their sanity begins to wither.

Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures
Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures /

There may also be external forces at work driving the men apart, but it’s all kept unclear as we focus our sights on Winslow, who is bothered by Wake constantly inserting himself into night watch duty for the lighthouse, curious to see if the old grump is hiding something in the tower. Maybe he is? Maybe Winslow’s just crazy? These are questions that we are allowed to mull over as the film continues to become more bonkers and that is the true strength of The Lighthouse.

With a perfect runtime of just under two hours, Eggers is given ample time to dig into the men’s psyches and examine just what makes them tick in order to provide us with a memorably messed up experience. There are no real sides in The Lighthouse, with our own interpretations of the characters ultimately serving as the most important way to look at the film. That isn’t to say the film is too vague with not providing real answers, but the meaning of the answers is something left for us to discuss.

Enchantment in the light

I haven’t mentioned the horror of The Lighthouse yet and that’s because the scariest parts of the movie lie within the nature of our two main characters. Winslow and Wake carry the film from both a narrative and entertainment standpoint, providing insight into their psyches and beliefs in a simultaneously disturbing and hilarious manner.

First off, we have Willem Dafoe’s Wake, who not only walks and talks like a Captain Ahab-lookalike (something which is even mentioned in the film) but is a firm believer in fate and superstition, wearily warning Winslow to never bring bad luck onto them. Beneath Wake’s crude outer personality is a man who seems to cherish his job as a lighthouse keeper, even to the point of almost being in love with the small island.

Dafoe’s performance is one of wonder, comedy, and mystery, echoing Robert Eggers’ history with theater productions. He goes on long-winded, yet endlessly fascinating tangents against Winslow, completely asserting his dominance in a magnificent performance from the veteran actor. To even memorize two sentences in Wake’s dialect is impressive enough, but Dafoe makes it look like a cakewalk, embodying his character to such a disturbing degree that I couldn’t imagine anyone else pulling it off.

Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures
Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures /

Yet for me personally, Robert Pattinson is The Lighthouse‘s MVP onscreen. As the significantly less crude Winslow, Pattinson is often tasked with reacting to Wake’s mannerisms, usually with annoyance and disgust. Out of the two, he is not seen as the alpha and we see this take a toll on Winslow, growing increasingly frustrated with what feels like isolation from both the outside world and his own partner.

It’s in these moments where Pattinson truly shines, balancing between the frayed ends of his sanity and complete rage in a masterful fashion that highlights exactly why he is the perfect choice for the next Batman. He is calm and reserved, but brimming with anger and deep-rooted darkness that soon matches the external madness of Wake in deliciously (reference!) insane ways. No matter what we eventually learn about the two men, there’s something fascinating about Winslow that makes him stand out in The Lighthouse, thanks in large part to Pattinson’s amazing work.

“Why’d ya spill yer beans?”

More so than the acting, The Lighthouse benefits from its presentation, looking like something out of the early 1900s thanks to the film’s exuberant personality. Filmed with an aspect ratio of 1.19:1, The Lighthouse encloses the frame real estate onscreen in order to communicate the claustrophobic atmosphere that engulfs the two men, depriving them of their humanity and making the more abstract and surreal moments of the film that much more disturbing.

The Lighthouse can be akin to an endurance test of sorts, testing out just how much you can take before you start to lose your head over the insanity leaping out of the screen, much like Gaspar Noe’s Climax earlier this year. Though this film is a bit more crowd-pleasing than that, it won’t let you off the hook by any means. This film confronts you, even if just to show just how crazy things have gotten and it’s the most admirable quality of this admittedly tough film.

Arguably the toughest part of the film is dialect spoken by Wake and Winslow. The Eggers brothers extensively studied the spoken language of both characters, hailing from different areas and social climates, to create an authentic experience that makes it feel like you’re witnessing a novel from the time adapted for the screen.

Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures
Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures /

That comes at the expense of the film being incredibly difficult to understand, which is sure to turn some people off and for good reason, to be honest. A subtitle feature would absolutely be welcome here, as the film’s rewatches may just consist of people trying to understand anything they missed on the first watch.

Regardless, Robert Eggers helms this difficult project with the kind of craft that seems inspired by a combination of Alfred Hitchcock and Werner Herzog. Mixing Herzog’s unusual personality with the tight direction of Hitchcock, Eggers comes away with a delightful horror-comedy that aims to make you sick to your stomach from both laughter and shock value. Improving from his already impressive debut with The Witch, Robert Eggers has shown what he can do with a difficult story like this.

It’s a small story on the surface, but its presentation is grand, booming, and large-scale, delivering an experience worth paying an Endgame-esque ticket price for. It’s doubtful that this film will garner much Oscar attention, but it is one of the best films of the year, regardless, with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson each delivering career-best performances. This may not be the most accessible film of the year, but it is one of the most essential to experience for yourself.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

The Lighthouse is out now on limited release and nationwide next week.