Film Review: The Lighthouse
By Erik Nielsen
Film can be like a dream, part and parcel with the machinations that make it so - sound, vision, storytelling, people - the way The Lighthouse is constructed makes you part of the hallucinations and isolation the two characters undergo whilst also revealing little to nothing about their suffering. If anything, the film is about trying to escape your wild disbelief in reality. A movie that is part fever-dream, part buddy-comedy and also, the most artful film committed to a running fart joke since Ozu’s Good Morning, The Lighthouse is something to behold.
A24 is having one of their best years yet and this is the studio that gave us Moonlight and Lady Bird. If you were to look at all the year-end lists and what people have been talking about so far, you'd be remiss to find The Farewell, High Life (also starring Pattinson), The Souvenir, Midosommar and Last Black Man in San Francisco not among the contenders for best films of the year. The Lighthouse will surely be there too and we still (at least not us festival-goers) have not had the chance to see Waves or Uncut Gems.
Robert Eggers latest venture with A24 yields something different entirely from most of the production company’s films but can fall along the same lines as Midsommar. He’s also found a fine eye for period-specific horror-comedy that was part of his debut -The Witch’s DNA. It is absurd, brash, hilarious, psychedelic and terrifying. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson - in what is one of the greatest two-handers ever assembled - play two 19th century New England lighthouse attendants who are isolated to this giant crack of rock where they take care of the land as well as look over the mysterious lighthouse. The lighthouse produces an immense light and a sound that could be mistaken for a UFO or it could be the score of the movie. We’re never told what it is but it begins to affect or at least coincides with the psyche of Pattinson who slowly begins to unravel.
The textures of the film are beautiful and carefully constructed. The look could easily be mistaken for one of Bergman's earlier films, especially The Seventh Seal. The mystery of the sea and the dark illuminating forces surrounding are a perfect fit for the old 16mm stock Eggers chose to shoot on and immediately conjure up the iconic opening scene of Seal. Eggers creates an alchemy of analog and digital technologies to get shots we’ve never seen in this style, especially with his two actors. The cracks in Dafoe's face are brought out by the black and white, becoming a set piece in themselves. Each mark on his face carrying a different story, contrasting with the boldness of his eyes and the ferocity in which he speaks.
The two are almost immediately at odds when they arrive in their living quarters. Pattinson goes to lay down in his bed and Dafoe farts in his face. But, the tension continues when Dafoe wants to indulge in his alcoholic behaviors - always with a drink in hand, always hungover - but Pattinson refuses the first night “A drink makes a man dumb” he says in his starkly toned New England accent. It should also be said that the dialogue is remarkable and incredibly poetic. It’ll be worth the rewatch just to understand what they’re saying because it’s as dense as the set design, masked by the thick accents and elevated by the performances, as the actors know just when to go over the top with their delivery.
The real insanity begins when Pattinson’s character starts to hallucinate. He has visions of a mermaid in the dark abyss, he begins to hear things coming from the lighthouse and even seeing octopus tentacles flushing about when he decides to spy on what Dafoe does at the top. But he keeps it inside, struggling to maintain his distance from what could reasonably be madness simmering to the surface. He’s also completely isolated, with no means of finding out the truth of the lighthouse if not told directly by Dafoe. There’s only one record book, which is never shown to Pattinson, only kept close by his partner who forbids Pattinson from looking at it. This tortures him and the shots of his face are unforgettable, brooding with dark circles in his eyes, losing all grip with reality as he vanishes into the shadows, an apt metaphor for his madness. Soon, Pattinson begins to indulge and the next 20-30 minutes of the film are the two drinking, dancing, eating and fighting to no end. They have no idea what to do with themselves nor do they trust each other but love to bicker about what makes a man a man.
Finally, when Pattinson confronts Dafoe, Dafoe begins to ploy and trap him like he did his other assistant - who we learn went mad too. He convinces Pattinson that he's the one who's been forcing him to drink, that he's the one who wanders into the lighthouse late at night. It’s terrifying because Eggers meticulously sets up montages where we feel like we’re going crazy too, trapped on the rock with them but also in the psyche of two characters who are spiraling out of control. Eggers slowly reveals the truth to us or so it seems.