Killing a seabird. Invokes as much bad luck as spilling the salt. In 1890’s offshore New England, old and creaky lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) hires young wickie Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) to do menial work around the property for one month. Tom gets a younger hand, and Ephraim—aka “Lad”—gets to learn the ins and outs of this newly selected profession. He’s a nomad who just wants to do his own thing. Could he be hiding more than he lets on?
The two couldn’t be more different, with Tom’s storytelling disposition and Ephraim’s stoic distance. Yet, the two slowly begin to take a liking to one another. But as soon as Mother Nature hits in the form of a chaotic storm, everything that could go wrong on a rock isolated from civilization does. What’s real could be a mirage. The only thing that is real? The constant bellowing of The Lighthouse.
It’s hard to imagine a 2019 feature more bonkers than Midsommar, but The Lighthouse, a fellow A24 production, has entered the chat and stakes a claim to being so. Similar to Ari Aster’s sophomore breakup feature, it’s an exquisite production that does make a person question “What’s really going on here?” pertaining to its narrative, though if you go along for the ride, it’s close to impossible to not be drawn into it all.
Like Aster, it’s only taken two films for director Robert Eggers to stake his claim as not only one of horror’s next best auteurs, but one of cinema’s as a whole. His puritan period piece known as The VVitch latched itself deeply into the 1630’s, a beautifully frightening recreation of tales usually heard only in books and on the Internet. And it’s truly impressive the lengths he goes to creating such a real setting in The Lighthouse, shot in various locations in Canada. Never mind the black and white aesthetic and 4:3 aspect ratio (this hearkens to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone) creating deep claustrophobia along with camera angles seemingly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. When viewing The Lighthouse, the osmosis is strong. You can taste the cholera, feel the chilly winds after a torrential downpour, and smell the relentless flatulence. Visually, there’s nothing quite like this movie and the setting it immerses the viewer in, fit with an encompassing score from composer Mark Korven along with that ever-present hypnotic foghorn.
The attention to detail Eggers and co-writer, brother Max Eggers use in The Lighthouse is the perfect mix of a lot of research and a bit of imagination/interpretation. They have gone on record outlining their approach to crafting the setting and the dialogue the lead characters speak with, utilizing various lighthouse keeper sailor journals to create authentic dialects and story inspirations. Speaking of story, The Lighthouse shares yet another similarity to Midsommar. It might be a little too vague for its own good.
Nothing is inherently wrong with ambiguity, though there is a moment or two in any narrative where it’s time to at least take a semi-strong step in what is trying to be said, and who’s point of view the story is being told from. The Lighthouse is a fair deal of commentary on masculinity, encompassing parallels to Greek mythology and even some Christianity. Sure, it’s pretty intriguing, but The Lighthouse may work best if watched as a simple story of two men descending into their own simultaneously separate and shared psychosis. I mean, going stir-crazy on a miserable rock in a grungy lighthouse could make anyone mad, right?
Regardless of the lens it’s to be viewed through, The Lighthouse is a spectacular showcase for two actors who—to paraphrase the great Kevin Harlan—show no regard for human life, and absolutely go for it. For years now, Pattinson has shed his pretty boy Twilight persona for uniquely complex and out-there characters and his Ephraim is no different. The mismatched chemistry he shares with Dafoe, who chews scenery with a Poseidon-like beard and fisherman gibberish, is captivating, and often times, intentionally hilarious. This duo and their director seem to inherently know that despite their unwavering commitment to setting and style (everyone has been open to how taxing the shooting was—everything weather-wise seen in the movie actually happened) there’s a ridiculousness to all that is present on screen, and it’s something they lean into without dampening unease.
Those anticipating a straight horror will almost certainly be disappointed. But for those willing to climb those spiraled steps into illuminated insanity, The Lighthouse beckons. Aye, sir!
Photo credits go to impawards.com, pastemagazine.com, entertainment.enquirer.net, and indiewire.com.
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