Warning: this review is not spoiler-free. Content warning for graphic descriptions.
“Hereditary.” “Get Out.” “It.” “A Quiet Place.” The last few years have seen a renaissance of genre-defying horror films and “The Lighthouse” is no exception. Due to the forces of director Robert Eggers (“The Witch”) and actors Robert Pattison and Willem Dafoe, this film is unlike anything this decade of movies has seen.
The film follows two lighthouse keepers on a small island in the early 1900s. Pattison’s character, Ephraim Winslow, is on a four-week indentured stay under full-time wickie Thomas Wake, Defoe’s character. Between endlessly difficult labor, seagull hauntings and siren-related visions, Winslow finds himself drawn to the mystique of the lantern room, which he is unable to enter. A storm hits the island the day that Winslow is supposed to be picked up, leaving Winslow and Wake stuck inside. As the storm worsens and alcohol replaces rations, the two both go insane and meet their demises.
From the deep swells of the foghorn to the endless shots of turbulent waters, “The Lighthouse” forebodes old-school horror from the beginning. Eggers is proficient at crafting this aesthetic by never allowing the viewer to feel comfortable. The mood has its physical components; because it’s shot on 35 millimeter black-and-white film, the shots are fuzzy and indeterminate with very little depth, in an aspect ratio so narrow, it feels claustrophobic. It also doesn’t hesitate to leave pieces ambiguous. Little changes in technique occur between portraying real life and recalling Winslow’s dream sequences, especially as the movie progresses further. Even the seagulls in the background are poorly-controlled puppets, with little hiding the falsity. The audience is trapped in a state of perpetual confusion and this is to the success of Eggers.
Both Pattison and Dafoe give incredible performances. Dafoe, in particular, masters the retired sailor role with an incredible character range. He transitions between wise storyteller, gross old man and exploitative boss effortlessly, which makes for what feels like a full personality. Pattison harnesses his talent for brooding and reinvents it completely for Winslow’s character. However, both actors perform best off of eachother. In the latter half of the movie, as the two succumb to insanity, their interactions are complex, hostile, tender, volatile, funny and everything in between. This is best highlighted in the scene where drunk Winslow angrily admits to not liking Wake’s lobster dish: Wake places a dramatic curse upon Winslow and after a period of silence, Winslow says he likes Wake’s cooking.
If this movie has any weaknesses, it’s in the pacing. The period of time between the storm hitting the shores and Winslow admitting to murder feels like a hazy lull, rather than something mystifying. The narrative of “The Lighthouse” relies on ambiguity, which can be especially frustrating in already ambiguous scenes. Its enigma, when harnessed incorrectly, becomes a force of audience distance.
What ultimately makes this ambiguity draw the audience in is strong imagery. Visions of sea monsters, the lighthouse, and one-eyed beings haunt the waking and dreaming lives of the characters. The lore is the film’s strongest feature. The world of Wake and Winslow is not explained, but observed through intense visual themes. The final image of a one-eyed Winslow, organs spilled out on the rocks as seagulls feast on him alive, is a perfect escapulation of the grotesque beauty that is present throughout the film. “The Lighthouse” succeeds at establishing raw symbology, bound to stick with the audience long after their viewing.
“The Lighthouse” is a haunting, alluring tale that has the potential to be the best movie you see this year. Though, if you choose to watch it, you can be sure that it’ll be the only movie you’ve ever seen of its kind. 9/10.