Truly original films are hard to come by these days, so for writer/director Robert Eggers (The Witch) to make a film like The Lighthouse, a black and white, horror/psychological thriller/comedy is certainly a step in the right direction, even if it is in the most unsettling of ways. Nobody could argue the fact that this film is unlike any other, which sets it apart and makes it a wholly unique and surreal cinematic experience.
The general plot of the film follows two men, Tom (Willem Dafoe) and Winslow (Robert Pattinson), who are tasked with the seemingly easy job of running a lighthouse for 4 weeks. However, this couldn’t be further from the terrifying yet transfixing journey that Eggers opts to take the viewer on. These two men are really the only characters in the film, isolated far away from civilisation and this theme of isolation is implemented from the second they enter their lodgings together. The blaring horn of the lighthouse, the clanking of cogs, each sound that accompanies Winslow’s arduous chores and even the piercing shriek of a seagull are supported by a nerve-shattering score from Mark Korven that is constantly imbuing the film with utter dread. Sound in this film is essential in creating the tone and does so to maximum effect, creating nightmarish audio that really sticks with the viewer.
The audience is left constantly pondering where the story is going to go in the best of ways, as the twists and turns of a brilliantly crafted screenplay are backed up by dialogue that is both sharp and surprisingly hilarious. The way Eggers’ film is able to balance horror and hilarity whilst probing the psyche of these two men is no mean feat and it’s a testament to a gifted director whose name should deservedly be in the conversation at the Oscars.
When a film has just 3 credited actors, with one of those only having a cumulative screen time of about 1 minute, it’s imperative that the performances are able to carry the weight of telling the story. In The Lighthouse, the viewer is treated to career-best performances from both Pattinson and Defoe who help to elevate the film to masterpiece levels. Their joint dalliance with depravity fuelled by their ferocious unravellings are magnificent to behold, with each actor transforming into their respective roles and carrying the story on their talented shoulders.
Each of them demonstrates astonishing accent work, nailing the at times semi-incomprehensible sailor talk and deliver their lines so naturally, it feels like they aren’t even acting at all. Both are given hefty monologues to spew at the other and both effortlessly command the screen in these scenes, complemented by close-up framing that really captures the intensity of the film. Pattinson seems to relish the descent into madness that his character is subject to in an almost method-like manner, where it feels as if the lines between the character and the actor are very blurred. Dafoe serves as the perfect foil for Pattinson with his bellowing, cantankerous, folktale-telling lighthouse keeper who drives his colleague to the depths of insanity he eventually reaches. The two of them are like volatile magnets that are inseparable yet have this immediate divide that fuels the film’s narrative and makes for two truly Oscar-worthy performances, that may just score nominations for the excellent pair.
A colossal part of capturing the essence of this 1890s setting is found in the film’s stunning black and white cinematography that really has the feel of classical Hollywood cinema. It’s an ode to times gone by that has a gorgeous balance between day and night and is crucial to creating the look of the lighthouse, it’s inner mechanisms and the surrounding rock it’s built on that tells this hallucinatory story in a truly unique way. The story relies heavily on old sailors folk-tales told by Dafoe’s character that plague Pattinson, which leads to some truly grotesque, batshit hallucinations that will send shivers down your spine and leave you utterly dumbfounded at what you’ve just witnessed. It’s just so rare to have every element of a film combine in this way to tell such a crazy story that never falters.
Genuinely, this is one of the very best films of the year and should really be competing at the Oscars. There’s not anything it can even be compared to, such is the originality of the writing and the way it has been meticulously crafted to achieve striking sounds and visuals that really stay with you once the credits roll. Pattinson and Dafoe turn out defining, magnetic performances that should also place them in the awards conversation without a doubt. The Lighthouse might not be for everyone but it is a funny, trippy, horrifying thrill ride into the depths of the human psyche that has to be seen to be believed, a truly masterful piece of filmmaking.
Words by Elliott Jones