TIFF19 REVIEW: The Lighthouse [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 110 minutes
    Release Date: October 18th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: A24
    Director(s): Robert Eggers
    Writer(s): Max Eggers & Robert Eggers

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

You can stop yourself from worrying about story the moment you sit down for Robert EggersThe Lighthouse since there is none—at least none of value besides the simple premise of two men isolated on a foggy island with nothing but their wits (and nightmares) about them. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is the seasoned veteran and thus the man-in-charge of assigning tasks. That process is simple too: he gets to man the light from evening to morning while his latest compatriot Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) does all the rest. For four weeks one hoards the single most interesting object within the entirety of their surroundings while the other endures hard labor. Paranoia sets in. Power divides. And sanity becomes an abstract concept out of their grasp.

That’s it. That’s The Lighthouse from start to finish. Wake berates Winslow any chance he gets (when not farting, drinking, or gazing upon him from high with a look of disgust) and Winslow takes it until the point at which he no longer can. Their equally inscrutable dialects (Eggers and his co-writing brother Max used extensive research to keep period detail intact throughout) force us to watch their faces and witness the micro- and macro-expressions held upon them to know where each stands at any given moment. They needle away at each other, lose themselves to visions of Gods and monsters (some sequences recall the recent slomotion sequences of Lars von Trier), and allow the violence roiling beneath facades of civility loose. Reality ceases to exist.

Shot in black and white 4:3 with natural light, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke execute some otherworldly gorgeous compositions. Whether it’s the crop, contrast, or augmented drama with an aesthetic shift and low-angle vantage transforming Dafoe into a formidable beast of unbridled aggression before our very eyes, you cannot help but be mesmerized. And as the rote machinations of their duties on this island fall into their repetitive rhythms, we too start to slowly go insane. Sometimes there will be a tiny flourish of comedy (a seagull provoking homicidal tendencies), fantasy (tentacles flailing in the lighthouse), or sexual desire (Valeriia Karaman‘s mermaid beckoning Winslow), but mostly it’s the palpable animosity ready to explode. Eggers quick cutting between their fisticuffs and hugs later only adds to our disorientation.

This is a slow descent towards chaos that will either excite (like those at the edge of their seats, bloodlust putting a smile on their faces) or frustrate you (like me). Well that’s reductive because I was excited too. When it’s finally discovered that there’s nowhere to go but the inevitability that these men will put their hands to each other’s throats, however, that excitement was relegated solely to the sensory experience. I became enraptured by the sound design with its hammer clangs and air horns infiltrating my brain as it permeated the story to flatten sight and sound onto a single layer of surreal incongruity. The characters’ actions become inconsequential—nothing but fuel for their anger. And that anger is fuel for Eggers to give their nightmares life.

You don’t therefore watch The Lighthouse. You absorb it. Rather than take what it provides at face value, you must look beyond the surface at how it makes you feel. Do we care about Winslow’s past? Only as far as it gives Thomas ammunition to lord his superiority and thus goad his younger into dropping all pretenses by letting resentment and baser instincts free. The same goes for anything Thomas does since it’s all there to incite. What will be the final straw? What will make Winslow stop projecting his hatred for this man onto everything else within reach and target him completely? Add some ever-worsening weather and the rage escalates even quicker while the confines grow smaller. It’s as though the frame is squeezing them to burst.

You therefore have to admire craft above all else. The visuals are magic, the sound abusive, and the performances feral. Pattinson and Dafoe are like caged animals slinking around the perimeter, testing each other’s resolve before pouncing. While the moody, Old Hollywood lighting effects delivering silent film drama to the actors’ perfectly over-the-top theatricality provide images that seared themselves to the backs of my eyelids, however, the cartoonish tone of Eggers’ injected broad humor didn’t quite work for me. I thought it subverted the terror too much and rendered the truly dark moments less impactful. Only when the wheels come off to force his hand away from such halts in the madness of a breakneck climax did I wake up and say, “I guess I did enjoy it.”

[1] Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe. Photo by Eric Chakeen. Courtesy of A24
[2] Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe. Courtesy of A24
[3] Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe. Courtesy of A24

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