Updated: Feb 9, 2020
The Lighthouse is a very effective, black and white, psychological drama about a descent into madness. It uses vivid imagery and intense performances to depict the strange events that befall two men isolated together in a remote lighthouse. It watches as they drive each other past the brink of sanity. Or maybe it is the loneliness mixed with the storm outside that does it. Regardless, the movie makes its viewers feel somewhat like its characters do. Its intentional repetition, confusion and inevitability will either enthrall you or make you restless. For me, it was about 90% the former. The craftsmanship as well as the acting are more than enough to make this a fascinatingly unsettling experience.
As the story begins, a man we learn is named Winslow arrives at a lighthouse run by an older man we learn is named Thomas. Thomas’ previous assistant died and Winslow is there to replace him. Thomas treats him like a servant, ordering him around and insulting him. At the same time, Winslow starts seeing things, while wondering what is at the top of the lighthouse, where Thomas has forbidden him to go. Things take darker turns from there.
The Lighthouse (106 minutes, without the end credits) has a lot to admire about it. First is the acting. This is a two character piece. The actors have much to convey with only each other to play off of, in addition to long stretches with no dialogue. Robert Pattinson is fantastic as Winslow. Wanting to prove himself, with no real idea of what he has gotten himself into, he is good at showing a man struggling to tell the difference between reality and dream. This movie is like a waking nightmare and Pattinson makes that come alive in every scene. Over the last few years, between The Lost City of Z, Good Time, High Life and now this, he has put together a collection of great, unpredictable, performances in very diverse projects. This is certainly in the conversation for his best. The paranoid, intelligent, easily rattled Winslow is consistently intriguing, keeping things interesting throughout.
The other role is filled by the wonderful Willem Dafoe, impatient, angry and long-winded. Thomas is not as layered of a character, but Dafoe makes him fully formed. He brings an offbeat sense of humor that occasionally pauses, yet never breaks, the tension. He is constantly active, sometimes wild, without being boring. Does he know what is happening to Thomas? Is he purposely trying to make him crazy? Or is he so obsessed with manning the light that he barely notices? Those questions hang in the air during their scenes together and Dafoe plays it like ignorance and manipulation are equally possible. He is tremendously entertaining, making the story’s confusion more of a mystery than a frustration.
There is also a welcome amount of natural humor that serves to complement the weirdness of the proceedings. The interplay between the two men, especially when they are drunk, contains some laughs, as does Winslow’s interaction with an aggressively annoying seagull. Director/producer/cowriter Robert Eggers (who previously made the legitimately creepy The Witch) uses the location to get into our heads while, tonally, putting us into the head of Winslow. The tone reflects his scattered mindset: sometimes he is freaked out or suspicious or determined, at others he is content with drunken companionship with his grumpy boss. Even the humor contributes to the cloud of doom enveloping every scene.
The black and white cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke) adds to the grimness. These men have no color in their lives so, fittingly, the blacks and whites are often dull. The weather tilts toward the foggy and rainy, with plenty of shots of the lighthouse surrounded by water and little else. These images, plus the flashes of what Winslow thinks he sees, emphasizes their hopelessness and isolation. Eggers has not made a movie with a narrative intended to be easy to follow. If Winslow cannot make sense of things, we should not be able to.
The Lighthouse seems to be perfectly suited for arthouses; I doubt it will gain a strong following from mainstream audiences. It is odd, bordering on the experimental at times, and offers no thorough explanation for what happens. Eggers tries a lot here and not all of it is successful. But it still adds up to something quite captivating.
4 out of 5
Robert Pattinson as Winslow
Willem Dafoe as Thomas
Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Max Eggers and Robert Eggers