3.5 out of 5 stars.
In 1801, the policy was having a two man team of lighthouse keepers was changed after an incident at Smalls Lighthouse in Wales, when one keeper named Thomas died in an accident, leaving the other keeper, also named Thomas, alone to man the lighthouse, resulting in him going a little insane. This tale of two Thomas’s is the inspiration for “The Lighthouse,” a psychological drama directed by Robert Eggers and written by Eggers and his brother Max.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe play Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wake, two lighthouse keepers, or wickies, teamed up to man an isolated lighthouse off the coast of New England for four weeks. The older and more experienced Wake forces Winslow to do all the hard manual labor, not even allowing him the keys to the lantern at the top of the lighthouse. Meanwhile Winslow, after finding a carving of a mermaid in his cot, begins having visions of everything from tentacles to mermaids. Reality and fantasy start to blur more and more as time passes, and Wake and Winslow are stranded due to a terrible storm. With little rations and a lot of alcohol, the two men alternately bond and fight, and the initially rational Winslow becomes more and more unhinged.
Eggers made an impact in 2015 with his feature film directorial debut, “The Witch,” a horror movie about a pilgrim family who suffer psychological trauma after the actions of a witch plague their family. While that film was fairly straightforward, “The Lighthouse” is much more abstract, while exploring a similar theme of people stuck in a remote location, losing their minds. There is some mysticism involved in this film as well—Wake tells Winslow not to kill a seagull; it’s bad luck as they contain the souls of sailors—but as the film progresses it becomes harder to distinguish what is real and what is happening in Winslow’s head. The fact that Pattinson and Dafoe are the only actors we see in this film—besides Valeriia Karaman, who plays a mermaid Winslow sees in his visions—narrows down the perspective quite a bit, as we are presented with opposing views from a seasoned keeper and a newbie who just changed professions.
And Pattinson and Dafoe are both mesmerizing to behold in this film. Dafoe is every bit the stereotypical old sea captain, and yet, he brings a bit of himself to the role so that it feels a bit less like a parody and a bit more real. Pattinson continues to make intriguing acting choices with this film, effortlessly making Winslow transition from a man just trying to do a job to a man who has so completely lost his grip on his sanity that he is terrifying to behold.
“The Lighthouse” was shot in beautiful black and white, lending a stark atmosphere to the setting and emphasizing Pattinson and Dafoe’s features. The cinematography is stunning, whether we are watching the characters in close-up or a sprawling shot of the waves crashing against the lighthouse. The film is lit in a way that it feels like the only light we see is the natural light within the scene, resulting in shadowy corners that lend themselves to the overall feeling of dread that pervades each scene. There is a feeling of, maybe not terror, but tension, that is ever-present, particularly when the camera follows Winslow, as we often see his face before seeing what he sees
But the film never really transcends beyond that one-note sense of dread, even when everything culminates at the end. The script is sometimes darkly amusing, often weird, but there isn’t any emotional pull to invest the audience as anything more than an intrigued observer. “The Lighthouse” is a film that would likely benefit from a second or third viewing, but, as beautifully crafted as it is, I’m not sure that I would want to watch it again. Eggers’ film isn’t so much a piece of entertainment as it is a piece of art: wonderful to stare at and contemplate for a while, and maybe some people will get more out of it than others. I appreciate it, and I’m interested to see what projects Eggers continues to bring to the big screen in the future—but I don’t know that I can applaud it any further beyond that.
Runtime: 109 minutes. Rated R.