In just one film, Robert Eggers proved himself a master of horror with 2016’s The Witch (VVitch?). The film could coast solely on its amazing performances and pervasive, frighteningly raw tension and paranoia, but the spooky masterpiece kicks everything up three notches by slating some truly horrifying visuals that confirm every ounce of its audience’s deepest, most depraved realizations to their face. Checking off most of the above, Eggers’ The Lighthouse is probably another knockout horror hit.
Returning to old timey New England, The Lighthouse opens in the late nineteenth century as two lighthouse keepers arrive on an island empty but for its plaguing crowds of seagulls. As the wickies settle into their taxing routines, the pair’s psychological states fracture as their disparities in age, experience, and work ethic drive them apart within the island’s rough environmental conditions.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are fully dialed in as the bickering lightkeeper duo. Pattinson excellently portrays a slow, deliberate burn into madness in the wake of the period’s classic literature, capturing the particular essences of Melville, Poe, and Lovecraft’s seminal schooner works. Dafoe is just as good if not better, wonderfully nailing his role with a curmudgeonly presence eeking out enough sinister vibes to just lazily unsettle. He also farts a lot. The two actors do wonders together, but really, hat’s off to Pattinson’s dope mustache and Dafoe’s unhinged beard for doing at least half of the acting work in the film altogether.
Impressively, the dialogue is also authentic to the nineteenth century setting. Like in The Witch, Eggers’ (co-written by brother Max) screenplay pulls no punches and sticks close to the period’s voice, replete with all the “aye’s” and “ye’s” one could ever want.
It’s almost infuriating to sit through the film as a result, though. Pattinson and Dafoe deliver the dialogue very well, but it’s incredibly difficult to understand exactly what words are coming out of their mouths a good seventy percent of the time. Just enough is comprehensible to get the most basic gist of what’s going on plot-wise, but a lot of the interesting, character building back-and-forth is totally lost from the old timey line delivery. This was also a problem with Ralph Inseson’s character in The Witch, but it’s noticeably more prevalent here. Closed captions are absolutely mandatory with this film.
That being said, it’s not a bad thing to come back to The Lighthouse for repeat viewings. There are so many thought-provoking ideas and images swirling around the film that it demands another watch for one to make real lemonade out of Eggers’ work in the director chair. In addition to getting another crack at the film’s mysteries and themes, getting to bask in its creeping, immersive sound design and gorgeous visual tableaus harking Grecian imagery again is more pleasurable than a chore. One particular vision involving laser eyes and a naked Dafoe on the beach has already solidified itself as one of my brother and I’s favorite visuals of the year (decade, century).
Though limited to a cramped aspect ratio and (gorgeously creative) black and white cinematography, The Lighthouse does more than most films out there and squeezes every bit of detail out of every frame it can. Whether serving as intentional noise or reflecting kaleidoscopic shards of light, there’s always something eerie lurking in the background of the sailors’ miserable fight against the elements and each other.
Unless you’re a weathered sailor from the 1800’s, you probably won’t understand a drop of dialogue from the amazing performances in The Lighthouse. Still, for another shot at its excellence, every other piece of production in the film will keep you coming back for more.
Briny, salty, fresh