Warning – The Following Review contains major spoilers for The Lighthouse. For our spoiler-free review click here.
Greek Mythology tells of a titan by the name of Prometheus. A being who dared to give the gift of fire to man, and was punished greatly for it. Day after day of endless agony. All for the gift of fire. For the gift of light. In much the same way, Robert Eggers’s second feature, The Lighthouse, tells the story of a similar obsession. An isolation on a rock that drives a wedge between two men with sinister intentions. There are no good guys in this story. The Lighthouse tells the story of a descent into madness so well with its leading performances, artistic choices regarding technical production, and ends up being a fever dream of a movie that is one of the best of the year.
While it is very much different from Eggers’s previous work, The Witch, The Lighthouse still maintains similarities. Both involve isolation from the rest of society, for one. And The Lighthouse does that wonderfully. Right from the beginning, the opening scene establishes that the characters (and audience) are nowhere near civilization. The previous two lighthouse keepers pass by our protagonists without any acknowledgment. It’s here that we’re introduced to the new management of this lighthouse. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattison). For the next 4 weeks, Wake and Winslow will spend hour upon hour together, in enclosed quarters and corrosive weather.
The only time the two aren’t together is when performing their ‘wickie’ duties. Winslow is left to the more manual labor-heavy tasks. Cleaning gutters, swabbing wooden surfaces and the like. Wake has much simpler duties, which is just watching the light in the lighthouse, and cooking. Other than that, Wake barks orders at Winslow, unmercifully passing gas and making him swab the floors over and over. As the days pass on, with each harrowing task, Ephraim grows more cold to the captain that is Thomas Wake. Not only that, but his obsession with the light in the lighthouse grows each day. He wishes to take a look at it and watch over it himself but cannot. Wake gets aggressive and possessive of that duty, in a disturbing manner.
This setup is what makes The Lighthouse a stunning film. It consists only of Dafoe and Pattinson, constantly pounding at each other physically and verbally. So, when not attending to their duties and the two are together is when the film shines the most. It’s only after getting alcohol in their system that the two can get acquainted. Winslow and Wake drink and are merry for the entire night before they are supposed to be dismissed. It’s the morning after in which things take a darker turn in this film.
Did Wake intentionally get Winslow blackout drunk to miss the ride home? Does Wake have some sort of metaphysical connection to the light? Was Winslow’s senseless slaughter of a seagull that put them in some sort of limbo in the first place? These questions plague you and more as you are not sure what is real and what’s not in The Lighthouse. The film makes use of subtle inconsistencies and odd mannerisms to really bring the audience deep into the atmosphere of the film. Moreover, you almost feel as if you are in a nightmare yourself. The black and white image of the film makes the shadows and lighting in the film all the more eerie. I do not doubt that if this aspect ratio and color grading had not been in place, the film would have much less of an effect on me.
The imagery many of the shots possess makes the film that much more memorable as well. With certain compositions and framing looking like something straight out of a renaissance painting, The Lighthouse is a sight to behold. Also, the score by Mark Korven just accentuates the aesthetic of the film even more. On a technical aspect, the film impressed me on nearly every level. The set and production design made everything feel lived in and real.
After that moment the two were supposed to be picked up, all concept of time seems to fly out the window. You’re unsure from that point how long they’ve been there, and supplies are running out fast. Our lead characters go from drinking alcohol to drinking kerosine intended for the lighthouse to keep up their buzz. While their descent into madness is disturbing, it is not without its humor as well. a particular conversation about food leads to one of the most dramatic and disturbing monologues in Willem Dafoe’s career. The humorous part about it comes from the fact that this outburst was simply because Pattinson’s Winslow said he didn’t like his cooking. There are even more intimate moments, where Ephraim spills his beans on why he’s at such a distant lighthouse. These smaller character interactions make the film feel all the more grounded.
The Lighthouse would not be what it is without the stellar performances from its two leads. Therefore, Dafoe and Pattinson are at their career bests in this film. Pattinson’s Winslow is a character trying to run from his past that haunts him. Wake is a character that thinks more of himself than others think of him. It’s a combination of these two characters that light the screen on fire. The Lighthouse is a film carried entirely by its two actors. By the end, only one can come out on top. In the case of The Lighthouse, it’s Ephraim who is just crazy enough to try and take the light for himself. Similar to the tragedy of Prometheus that was brought up earlier in this review.
After all is said and done, Ephraim unfortunately suffers the same fate as Prometheus as well. Daring to defy the authority in Thomas Wake, Ephraim is left to the seagulls, the very creature he killed. Naked and lying on the shore, his torso open and exposed for the gulls to pick at. It’s a grim ending for a grim film. Nothing this year has gotten my attention or immersed me in its world as The Lighthouse did. As a result, it’s a disheartening and cinematic fever dream. It gets the best performances out of its actors. Moreover, it’s a bizarre and artistic study on the broken human condition. The Lighthouse just might be the best film of the year. – Ernesto Valenzuela
Grade – 10/10
The Lighthouse is now playing in theaters, and stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.