Horror fans fell in love with Robert Eggers with his feature directorial debut The VVitch. Given my love for that film, I was excited when Eggers entered the Secret Screening at Fantastic Fest 2019. His long-awaited second feature, The Lighthouse, is a black-and-white story that highlights and solidifies his directorial talent.
Co-written with his brother Max Eggers, The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson who play lighthouse keepers: Wake and Winslow. The movie chronicles their time together alone as they slowly descend into madness and violence when they become threatened by their worst nightmares. Wake is an established captain and Winslow is a grunt, a man who is just at the lighthouse to survive. From the start of the film, the relationship between the two is strained and by the end, when the volatility erupts, the commitment to their individual performances and chemistry is undeniable.
With a lean cast of three, The Lighthouse locks us in a room with Dafoe and Pattinson. Heightened by the theater experience itself, the claustrophobic lighthouse is all the more cramped, propelled by the fact that Eggers chose to not only shoot the film in black-and-white but also on 35mm film. This set-up pushes the audience to experience darkness in a different way than what we’re used to. The Lighthouse is technical perfection.
Every piece of the grimy sea-washed setting is perfectly set. The lighting is dim but never too dark. But most importantly, the sound design is expertly handled, allowing you to experience the roar of the storms and sea, putting nature at the front which adds weight to the dialogue between Dafoe and Pattinson. But, while the two men are the center of our story, the atmosphere is the star. Between the visuals and the sounds, everything is perfectly executed, making even the dirt and dishevelment feel pristine. It’s in Eggers’ technical perfection that I find flaws in The Lighthouse.
The Lighthouse is art, there is no denying that. However, the visual beauty of the film often overshadows the narrative, with many moments feeling as if they happen only to facilitate a shot. Acting as specters in their own stories, the slow-burn descent into chaos and fear that Wake and Winslow experience is raw as both Dafoe and Pattinson embody troubled men with troubled identities losing their grip and affecting each other. The feverish madness is palpable.
Their performances are emotional, loud, and driven by both humor and pain. While these stellar performances should work in the world that Eggers has created for them, they don’t. Dafoe and Pattinson bring a character and spontaneity that stands in contrast against a set that is immaculately dressed to look imperfect. Their world is manufactured while they are completely and complexly human. It’s this disconnect that makes the almost two-hour film feel like a lifetime.
The character’s depth is added to by their humor that builds a larger relationship between them and the audience. But that connective moment was shattered for me when Winslow’s mermaid obsession and repeated masturbation scenes became too creepy to be endearing but not scary enough to make his actions terrifying which ultimately leaves those scenes filled with awkwardness.
That said, The Lighthouse balance performance and visuals when the fantasy elements came into play after Winslow discovers a mermaid for the first time. The moments of ominous signs and mermaid anatomy mark the film as more than just a psychological drama of two men and the power of isolation. The effects work on the mermaid are something that I haven’t seen before and should be commended.
Overall, The Lighthouse is a film that shows Eggers’ technical strength perfectly, even if it loses its characters in it. Additionally, there are some moments that made me uncomfortable as a female viewer, and not in a good way. While I acknowledge the skill in this movie and fully accept why some will hold it above all else this year, it isn’t for me.
The Lighthouse is a film that shows Eggers’ technical strength perfectly, even if it loses its characters in it. Additionally, there are some moments that made me uncomfortable as a female viewer, and not in a good way. While I acknowledge the skill in this movie and fully accept why some will hold it above all else this year, it isn’t for me.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.