Published on October 21st, 2019 | by Michael Newman0
Growing up I remember watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents on USA network and catching the occasional twilight zone on the weekends. In fact, it’s hard to believe that our second TV was a small black and white 13” TV that we would watch all types of shows on when our living room TV was otherwise preoccupied. While all these shows were only available in black and white, they still portrayed a frightening imagery that likely would lose a lot of their suspense if the show had been presented in color. The Lighthouse, the second feature directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch) utilizes not only a black and white picture to build on the dread of loneliness the film wishes to convey, but also presents itself in a boxy format, to better mimic silent films of a bygone era.
The Lighthouse features Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake, a grizzled old lighthouse keeper who begins his four-week duty on a secluded lighthouse with Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a man who has never worked a lighthouse in his young life. Thomas a former seaman who longs for his time back on the waves directs Ephraim around in his duties as one would expect from an experienced sea captain, teaching Ephraim the way of a lighthouse keeper. One rule that Ephraim must obey is that no one manages the light except Thomas, and no one may look upon its glory except Thomas. Reluctant to obey but not wishing to lose his pay Ephraim obliges and the two spend four weeks managing their duties as best as they can.
It’s after the four weeks, when their relief fails to arrive, that things begin to go off the rails. It is here where the secrets begin to emerge, and the audience is left to wonder whether these two will ever make it off the island. It’s here where the film begins to intensify as the struggle for survival with dwindling supplies, and the effects of loneliness and solitude begin to rear its ugly head. Where each mans sanity will be tested and the bond, they have built over the past four weeks will be put to the test.
The Lighthouse is a movie that is difficult to put into any one genre. Much of the movie plays out like a drama, where the old man and the newcomer work to overcome their differences as one mentors the other. The movie always has an underlying sense of dread, wondering what will come next. As the film progresses, the genre changes, and the suspense and horror begin to develop. What was a job where each man understood their roles becomes a race for survival. The questions begin to mount as we see the characters relationship morph and change. Why did Ephraim choose a life of solitude so far from civilization?
Why doesn’t Thomas allow anyone to man the light but him? What is each men hiding from one another?
Willem Dafoe does another outstanding job as the gruff, old lighthouse keeper. His accent, mannerisms and evening toasts all are performed with such authenticity that it’s hard to distinguish the actor from the character.
The real surprise was the performance of Robert Pattinson who is best known for his previous works on the Twilight series. He brings so much character to the screen that I would have had a hard time recognizing him if I didn’t know he was in the movie. He delivers a performance that is likely to garner Oscar buzz, something that wouldn’t surprise fans of William Dafoe, but might shock fans of Robert Pattinson. Robert Pattinson in this role is by far the best performance he’s ever done in his career and all, including his most devoted fans, will be pleasantly surprised by his performance in this film.
As I discussed in the opening paragraph, some films and shows play best to the medium that they are recorded on. Much like the old Alfred Hitchcock movies/shows, The Lighthouse benefits from its use of black and white and its boxy presentation. While there is certainly plenty of dialog throughout, it still takes on a very “silent movie” feel. One that you could almost expect to see placards of dialog appear instead of the actual words coming out on the screen. It is this stunning use of the above that truly brings The Lighthouse alive, and if done in color would have lost much of its personality in the process.
There is a ton of imagery and symbolism which I’m sure will be argued about on numerous Reddit posts for the next few days and weeks to come. I won’t pretend to understand much of it, and I believe that Eggers leaves many of what we see open for interpretation. Everything from the lighthouse itself, to the seagulls, to the mermaids (yes you read that correctly) all are open for discussion. After watching it I couldn’t help but wonder what the discussion of this particular film would have led to in my theater appreciation course back in college. That’s not to say that you can’t simply sit back and enjoy it for what it is, I just think its far more beneficial to think of what was seen and try to understand the meaning of it all.
The Lighthouse isn’t a movie that will appeal to everyone. For those who want a scary and suspenseful movie, it would be difficult to recommend.
While it certainly has suspense, it suspenseful in the way of an old Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock movie, as opposed to something more recent like Paranormal Activity. The black and white video and the odd boxy aspect ratio may turn off a lot of folks as well, although I certainly don’t see it being as fascinating if it was done in any other way. There is a lot to love in this movie, and the character portrayals deserve the Oscar buzz that is certainly right around the corner. It’s a movie that is far easier to experience then to explain in a review, so I encourage those with even a little bit of curiosity to take the plunge and experience it for yourself.
3.5 out of 5 stars