Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson
Released: February 6, 2020
Grade: B+

The Lighthouse

In a recent interview, 36-year-old director Robert Eggers (The Witch) said he wanted to make a movie that was “obscure” and “ambiguous” and “weird”.  The Lighthouse is just that.  The screenplay, which he co-wrote with his brother, was always going to be set around a lighthouse but they couldn’t land on the right narrative.  It was originally a fictional ghost story but then it morphed into a loose adaptation of a true story that took place at the Smalls Lighthouse off the coast of Wales in the early 19th Century.

It’s more common in the theatre world but The Lighthouse is a rare cinematic two-hander in the sense that there are only two characters.  A pair of lighthouse keepers, referred to as “wickies”, have been posted on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.  It was originally a four week assignation but it drags into months due to a severe, prolonged storm that prevents a fresh crew from reaching the island.

The early scenes focus on the power dynamics between the two.  Wake (Dafoe) is the experienced veteran who likes to assert his authority while Winslow (Pattinson) is the relative newcomer looking to make some money and stay out of trouble.  The differences in their daily tasks serve as the perfect metaphor for their place in the island’s social hierarchy.  The younger Winslow is forced to get on his knees and scrub the floor in their small lodgings (the bottom) while the older Wake gets the easier job of tending to the lighthouse’s bright, beautiful light (the top).

If you think about being marooned for months on a tiny island with someone you don’t like… well... it’s inevitable that tension will arise.  Wake shows almost no mercy and, as a hard-ass boss, he’s intent on pushing Winslow’s buttons until he reaches a breaking point.  It seems the only time the pair get along and engage in meaningful conversation is when they’re drunk (thanks to the help of their vast vodka supplies).

The further the film goes, the stranger it gets.  Winslow experiences a series of hallucinations and reaches a point where he struggles to separate reality from fiction.  What is clear is that their isolation, both physically and mentally, is taking a heavy toll.  Eggers has shot in the entire film is black and white on 35mm film using the narrower 1.19:1 ratio to help infuse that same uncomfortable, claustrophobic feel on the audience.  You’d think it was shot in the 1930s given the grainy look and it’s no surprise that cinematographer Jarin Blaschke earned his first Academy Award nomination for his impressive work.

This will be a tough watch for some filmgoers.  The mumbling Willem Dafoe is borderline incoherent at times and, whilst he provides laughs (a nice touch) with his flatulence and his insults, there are scenes where you’re not sure what to think.  The ending might also leave a few scratching their heads.  That said, from its distinctive look to Willem Dafoe getting a mouthful of dirt, this is one of the more memorable films of the year.  Enter the cinema with an open mind.