Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in THE LIGHTHOUSE | ©2019 A24

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in THE LIGHTHOUSE | ©2019 A24

Rating: R
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson
Writers: Robert Eggers & Max Eggers
Director: Robert Eggers
Distributor: A24
Release Date: October 18, 2019

Before discussing THE LIGHTHOUSE proper, it may help one’s understanding to read some comments overheard from viewers leaving a Los Angeles press screening of the film. These include, “I couldn’t stop grinning all the way through,” “Better than my first marriage – just kidding,” and a sincere “That was awful.” In other words, there seems to be a wide range of reactions.

Director Robert Eggers, who co-wrote THE LIGHTHOUSE with Max Eggers, previously wrote and directed 2016’s THE WITCH. THE WITCH was a work of highly effective folk horror set in the 17th century, which used deliberate pacing, period dialogue and muted colors to create a sense of building dread.

With THE LIGHTHOUSE, Eggers jumps forward a few centuries, to 1890. He’s managed to find an even more isolated location for his new tale, still employs period dialogue, and has gone for black-and-white cinematography this time around, with a 4:3 aspect ratio, no less. This means that the image is almost square, like the early silent movies that would become popular in about two decades. The filmmaker’s evocation of place and time is unimpeachable.

The main difference between THE LIGHTHOUSE and THE WITCH is that, while THE WITCH works as a fear-fest, THE LIGHTHOUSE is probably best viewed as pitch-black comedy. Yes, there is plenty of gore (along with feces, vomit, etc.), along with some amazingly bizarre imagery, and yes, there are a number of mysteries. However, since what we’re witnessing is a essentially a contest of insanity between characters played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, it’s impossible not to laugh out loud in places – which seems to be Eggers’ intention.

Dafoe portrays Thomas Wake, a lighthouse keeper on a small island that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Pattinson plays Ephraim Winslow, who is supposed to spend four weeks as Wake’s assistant before he’s rotated out and someone else to takes over his tedious duties.

Wake starts out blustery and bossy, talking like a pirate and fixating on minute details. Winslow begins as withdrawn and terse, though he soon falls prey to nightmares and/or hallucinations, which are real doozies. (There’s one scene of what could be termed Lovecraftian intimacy that would be rated Z if the MPAA took it seriously.) And then things start to get stranger, and we’re meant to wonder which character is crazier and more dangerous, as well as who’s telling the truth about what, and whether madness or the supernatural is to blame.

As often happens with movies that traffic hugely in ambiguity, with no reliable narrators, THE LIGHTHOUSE leads to us not caring very much how certain questions are answered. The filmmakers seem to be a lot more interested in our moment by moment experience – disgust, hilarity, confusion. Damian Volpe’s sound design is invaluable in shaping the sense of oppression, no matter where we are on the island. Imagining what it would be like to live with the foghorn for a month is enough to make us question our own sanity.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in THE LIGHTHOUSE | ©2019 A24

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in THE LIGHTHOUSE | ©2019 A24

Dafoe commits so completely to every turn of Wake that, even at considerable full throttle, it’s a seamless performance. Pattinson has some accent issues, but he’s otherwise strong. Both actors go through such arduous physical sequences that it seems like they should both get some kind of professional acknowledgement just for surviving the job and returning to work the next day.

THE LIGHTHOUSE doesn’t offer standard narrative satisfactions, which is problematic when we’re asked to attend to a mystery. On the other hand, it is a complete and original vision. Overall, the experience is a bit like visiting a fabulous home inhabited by some disturbed, inhospitable people. We agree it’s astonishing visually and aurally. We also don’t doubt that its residents really live there, but we can tell soon enough that we don’t really want to stick around to get to know them as well as we do. We leave the theatre feeling like we’ve been through something, even if we may not be able to articulate exactly what the hell it was.

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