The Lighthouse is a darkly atmospheric descent into utter madness. Director/co-writer Robert Eggers skillfully crafts a unique theater experience. A period psychological thriller shot in grainy black and white, The Lighthouse immerses you in its disturbing environment and enthralling performances of its two-man cast. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe push the acting craft to the brink. They feed off each other like vultures snapping at carrion. Their intensity building to a bizarre, somewhat predictable climax. The end result is thought provoking, but unrewarding. The outcome feels assured once the characters become unstable.
The Lighthouse never defines a specific date, but the setting depicts a late 19th century time frame. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives at a remote lighthouse with the older Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). The men are “wickies”, lighthouse keepers on a four week assignment. The tiny island is cold and desolate with roaring waves crashing against jagged rocks. Their only company, persistent seagulls constantly pecking at the isolated workers.
The quiet and reserved Ephraim is put through the paces by the irascible Thomas, whose drinking and flatulence never ceases. The labor is backbreaking and disgusting. Ephraim carries lamp oil, coal; cleans constantly and dumps their filthy chamber pots in raging inclement weather. Ephraim finds a tiny mermaid figurine inside his hair-filled mattress. She’s the only beautiful thing in his world.
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As the men reach closer to the end of the job, Ephraim wonders why he cannot tend to the radiant lamp. Thomas again shuts him down. That’s his work, do what you’re told or be written up for insubordination. Ephraim becomes angry at the annoying seagulls and his intractable, farting master. When an unexpected storm cancels their ferry to leave, the wickies are forced to depend on each other as the island is battered. Secrets are laid bare as the crushing isolation peels away their sanity.
Robert Eggers (The Witch) uses the lighthouse and forsaken island to constantly grind the characters. The foghorn blares loudly throughout the entire run time. The wind, cold, and rain never ceases, locking the men together in their tight confines. Ephraim works like a dog as Thomas bathes in the glow of the light. The respite from darkness becomes a jealous knife that cuts into Ephraim. He begins to hallucinate horrible visions from his past. The terror growing alongside his sexual abstinence, Ephraim lusts after his prized mermaid. Reality slips away as time becomes seemingly endless.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe deserve universal acclaim for their astonishing performances. Everything from their accents to mannerisms is learned. These are period characters with a ton of dialogue and interaction between them. Their downward trajectory takes many incarnations along the way. The men hate each other, begrudgingly become friendly, and then reach a level of personal intimacy that is near appalling to see. The second act of the film begins a tour de force plunge into depravity. Pattinson and Dafoe will contend for every acting award.
The Lighthouse is raw, powerful, and brilliantly cinematic. While I had problems with the ending, I appreciate the mastery of the journey. Robert Eggers gives his superb lead actors a platform to show their incredible talent. Willem Dafoe has been great for decades, but Robert Pattinson proves himself equally formidable. The Lighthouse is produced by Regency Enterprises and distributed by A24.
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