The Lighthouse


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Lighthouse black and white
"The trouble with all this mood, is that it eventually gets laid on too thick." | Photo: Courtesy of La Quinzaine

History and folk horror continue to hold the interest of Robert Eggers in this follow-up to his visually striking debut The Witch. Like his previous film, the mood is generated by the psychological impact of isolation - this time a lonely lighthouse (is there any other sort?) on a barren, weather-beaten island. It is the fiefdom of Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), a grizzled old seadog, who looks almost as craggy as the rock his workplace sits on. New to the island is the younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), not-so-fresh off the boat for a four-week stint.

The atmosphere is oppressive from the start, with Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke in stark black and white, the near-square aspect ratio constricts the pair, while Mark Korven's score and Damian Volpe's sound design - filled with fog horn-like blasts and clinking chains that tick like a time bomb - stifle any chink of llight. Wake is a domineering soul, quick to stamp his authority in control of the light and outlining the various hard-labour tasks that lie in wait for the much more taciturn Winslow. It takes a few minutes to tune in to the archaic language both the men use, something hovering vaguely around turn of the century northern American but it scarcely matters as Eggers is more interested in visual imagery than scripted banter.

Madness hangs in the air like a sea fog, as the director - writing with his brother Max - draws on silent film imagery to further stoke the mood. Winslow hefts coal along a rocky path to a furnace and machinery whose workings could have been plucked from Man With a Movie Camera, while Wake, who talks about the lamp as though it is his wife, looks as though he is experiencing The Rapture when he becomes bathed in its light. Winslow also enjoys fantasies sparked by the discovery of a carved mermaid - scenes which, like too much of the film, slip towards over-indulgence. The atmosphere is more effective when Eggers draws on less flamboyant imagery, most notably gulls - which Wake believes hold the spirits of dead seamen - using their quotidian activity to generate a chill of dread and, later, madness, in Winslow.

The trouble with all this mood, is that it eventually gets laid on too thick. One man mentions "parody" and there are scenes here that many may feel cross the line into it. Watching Winslow being lashed by rain as he pushed his coal barrow, I was put in mind of dodgy Seventies television comedies, where buckets of water were slung at characters to simulate waves or weather. The descent into madness is also so swift that the film, like the men, has nowhere further to go, forced instead to repeat the scenes of conflict while attempting and not always finding variation.

Reviewed on: 23 Sep 2019
Share this with others on...
The Lighthouse packshot
A tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
Amazon link

Director: Robert Eggers

Writer: Max Eggers, Robert Eggers

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

Year: 2019

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: Canada

Search database: