Synopsis: When a storm hits, lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) end up stranded on a tiny island off the coast of 19th century New England. Then the craziness begins.
1. The closest approximation to The Shining since … well, The Shining, The Lighthouse is that rarest of things – a singular and cohesive vision, seemingly untouched by any outside interference or commercial considerations. Amidst a cinematic sea of homogeneity, The Lighthouse is a towering, unassailable beacon of originality. You will never see anything else like it.
2. First, the obvious. The Lighthouse is not only filmed in black-and-white, it is shot on lenses from the 1930s and using a claustrophobic aspect ratio. The frame is almost square, for Neptune’s sake. Aside from the technical components, the screenplay uses period-appropriate dialect, syntax and vocabulary, which means that even the canniest of viewers may have a hard time comprehending the gnarled nautical speech of Dafoe and Pattinson. The effect of all this is to transport the viewer into a different world, one where ‘ye’ is an acceptable second-person pronoun. Ironic that after so many movies have attempted to use push the limits of technology for the sake of immersion, the most genuinely immersive cinematic experience I’ve had in a long time does so by heading right smack in the opposite direction.
3. All this would count for as mere gimmickry, however, if not for the fact that The Lighthouse is a meticulously constructed work of art. Director Robert Eggers has real form for melding technical and writing wizardry into an indelible experience, as evidenced from his previous film The Witch, which also used period appropriate language and was filmed only with natural light. Unlike the naturalistic realism of The Witch, however, The Lighthouse is patently, flagrantly, ecstatically unreal, recognised by a meta-moment where Winslow refers to Wake as ‘a goddamn parody’ of a sailor. Indeed, The Lighthouse is very much perched right on the edge of ‘too much’, but Eggers (and his brother and co-writer Max) cleverly sidesteps this by leaning into the comedy of the situation. The Lighthouse is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, such as in the humdinger scene where Wake responds to Winslow not liking his cooking with a terrifically overwrought Shakespearean monologue, only to receive a laconic punchline at the end. Eggers also proves a master of the rake joke, with a scene involving Pattinson and a seagull that first goes on for too long before going on for exactly long enough.
4. Beyond the all-round experience, the genius of The Lighthouse lies in how it is so temptingly open to interpretation at all levels. The teasing ambiguities exist at the level of basic plot – are the supernatural events real or simply in the heads of two lonely and isolated men? Is Wake gaslighting Winslow to maintain his power over him or is Winslow genuinely a crazy psychopath tormenting a decrepit old man? Things get even more interesting at the thematic level, as the film can be read in so many different ways. Is it a retelling of the Promethean myth? Sure! Can you use queer theory to look at it? There’s plenty of homoerotic evidence for that, including an almost-kiss that turns into roughhousing. How about psychoanalysis? Certainly – there is much that can be said about Wake and Winslow possibly being two halves of the same person. What makes The Lighthouse so special though, is that it manages to make space for these multiple readings while still remaining a complete and satisfying narrative experience. There is no cheap ‘mystery box’ trick here, only a fantastically-told story that threads the needle perfectly of being enigmatic without being obtuse.
5. Oh yes, those performances! As if any evidence was further needed that the Oscars were trash, the shutout of both Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson is yet another load on that particular landfill. Dafoe has the showier role, and he absolutely tears into it, chewing the scenery at every opportunity. His Wake is a farting, snorting, bellyaching eccentric, able to ping wildly from raging fury to weeping sadness in the blink of an eye. Dafoe also proves to be the screenplay’s every equal. It is always a joy when writers and actors have a real love for the sound of the language, and Dafoe clearly relishes every enunciation of the salty sea dog pontificating the Eggers brothers have gifted him. And while Pattinson might have the quieter role (at first), he matches Dafoe at every step. His Winslow is a barely concealed bundle of neuroses and insecurities, a roiling reservoir of repression that Pattinson subtly conveys with every twitch of an eyelid and vocal inflection. The erstwhile Edward Cullen and future Batman has long been one of the most impressive actors in Hollywood, thanks to a wild and varied post-Twilight filmography, and he once again proves his immense talent with a mesmerising and ferocious performance.
6. All in all, The Lighthouse is a one-of-a-kind experience, made by a collaborative team that have gone all in on crafting a singular vision. Eggers had already shown impressive filmmaking chops with The Witch, but this is almost on another level entirely. Had I managed to watch this film in 2019, it would have easily vaulted into my top 20 of the decade. Watching The Lighthouse was an invigorating experience from beginning to end, thanks to its unimpeachable technical qualities, the strength of its performances, its uncompromising but never didactic artistic vision, and above all, the sheer audacity of everyone involved to produce and release something like this under the mainstream(ish) Hollywood system. If you are at all tired of the tired pablum that account for most movie releases these days, then trust me, you owe it to yourself to visit this particular Lighthouse. It’s a hell of a trip.