The Lighthouse (2019) (Review)

A few years ago, The Witch became a reference point in my very short list of horror films I really, really like – which is short not because I don’t watch a lot of horror movies, but because so very few of them are actually special in any way or form. I immediately saw Robert Eggers’ talent, and couldn’t wait for his new film, The Lighthouse. And now, having watched it, it would be really difficult to compare it to The Witch, so difficult in fact to the point that it would be unfair. Apart from a distinctive visual style, slow-burning plot and a preference for mildly disturbing rather than outright frightening content, the two films have very few things in common.

A tale of loneliness and power struggle

The film starts with the arrival of Winslow, a young man coming to assist Wake, an older lighthouse keeper, in the maintenance of the lonely structure on an even lonelier island. However, he soon discovers that the 50/50 rotational policy that the two men are supposed to follow is actually never going to happen, as Wake bosses him around and prohibits Winslow from even going anywhere near the beacon on the top of the lighthouse. The latter starts observing Wake’s strange behaviour, hears stories about the previous wickie allegedly seeing an enchantment in the light, going mad and comitting suicide, and even finds an ominous-looking wood carving of a siren in his mattress. It’s a hausting premise which does not take a lot of time in order to push its essence forward.

Ultimately, The Lighthouse’s main themes are loneliness and power. Even though they find themselves at complete odds more often than not, the two men find themselves forced to coexist, and even to seek methods of alleviating their solitude by interacting – the most successful interactions often involving alcohol. Ultimately, however, the lack of any other human contact does a number on their sanity, as they not only become more conflictual, but also start seeing or imagining peculiar things. During this game of cohabitation, Wake constantly tries to control Winslow’s behaviour and impose his own will onto him, which sparks various acts of rebellion from the young man. It’s a twisted game, and it certainly is a great pleasure to watch it unfold.

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The long walk from glittery vampires to sirens

What makes The Lighthouse shine so bright as a film is the chemistry between its two leads, Robert Pattison and Willem Dafoe. They both put in two of the best performances of the year, complementing each other and upping each other’s game time and time again. We all knew Willem Dafoe as a fantastic actor, so it is Robert Pattison who turns out as a complete revelation. I personally regarded him as the talentless glittery vampire from the Twilight movies, but certainly not anymore. With his performance is Eggers’ new film, Pattison not only atoned for all his mistakes of the past, but also established himself as one of the finest young actors out there, and I hope he can continue to choose roles that value his great potential.

The beacon is what you want it to be

Not much more can be said about the plot without spoiling important details, so I will refrain from going much deeper into the happenings, apart from evidencing the potential of drawing parallels with not only literature such as Moby Dick, but also Ancient Greek mythology and sailor legends. Why everything seems to work so well is parlty due to the outstanding visual style of the film. Shot in black and white with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, it feels much more like a film made in the early 20th century rather than 100 years later. This stylistical distance, although intangible, also manages to somehow subsonsciously create even more perceived distance between the two characters and the rest of the world, between present and past, between the light of the beacon and the darkness of the sea at night, and between sanity and a complete lack thereof. Watch it, definitely do!

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