A film review by Craig J. Koban November 3, 2019

THE LIGHTHOUSE jjjj

2019, R, 110 mins.

 

Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake  /  Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow

Directed by Robert Eggers  /  Written by Robert and Max Eggers

Certain sounds absolutely terrify me, especially ones that incessantly undulate in the background and get under my skin.  

The new period psychological horror thriller THE LIGHTHOUSE - one of the best and strangest films of 2019 - contains one sound that proves to be particularly panic inducing: a bass rumbling foghorn.  It's like an omnipotent secondary character in its own right, and with every new blast of it comes an ever increasing sensation that something awful is lurking around every corner of the frame.  Very few films make you feel the isolating and traumatizing dread of its characters the way this one does.   

THE LIGHTHOUSE is the New Hampshire born Robert Egger's second feature film, which follows up on his superlative rookie effort (also a period horror tale) in THE WITCH, one of the most auspicious directorial debut efforts that I certainly can recall, and one that made my list of the ten best films of 2016.  What made that film unique (outside of its historical setting) was how meticulously well constructed it was as a slow-burn scarefest, and one that didn't resort to petty jump scare formulas that permeate so many other similar genre films as of late.  If anything, THE LIGHTHOUSE is equally as masterful in terms of having a haunting and hallucinatory stranglehold on viewers.  It represents a wonderful companion piece to THE WITCH in terms of both being set well in the past and featuring chilling storylines of the gradual and uneasy mental unraveling of its characters when faced with unknown outside forces of a potential spiritual nature.  More importantly, THE LIGHTHOUSE and THE WITCH revel is using their environments to slowly exude a claustrophobic grip on both their characters and the viewers, which makes both chillingly bravura works of sinister mood. 

The basic premise of THE LIGHTHOUSE could not be anymore skillfully economical.  Set in the late 1880s, the film chronicles two lighthouse keepers ("wickies") that are contractually obligated to serve an arduously long tour of duty for four weeks on one extremely isolated island.  The two keepers in question are the cantankerous (and extremely gassy) Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), who oversees the younger and more wet-behind-the-ears Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), and right from the proverbial get-go they're a fire on gasoline combination.  Their locking of horns is not assisted by the fact that they are stationed literally at what seems like the edge of the known world, but the greenhorn Ephraim dutifully does whatever his superior in Thomas tells him to do, even when his boss' social skills are anything but tactful.  When Ephraim is not working like a slave for Thomas he has to put up with his horrendous cooking...and his old seafaring suppertime tales...and his farts (oooooh...especially his farts).  The only time both seem genuinely happy to be in each other's company is when they get drunk on many post-meal booze binges. 

 

 

Warning signs of malicious things to come rear their ugly heads early in the film.  Firstly, Thomas' last assistant went mad because of "some enchantment in the light."  And speaking of enchantment, Ephraim begins to notice some really, really strange things that seem to be happening at the top of the lighthouse late at night (an area that Thomas has enforced as being strictly off limits to anyone but him) that involves his crusty employer stripping naked and being gratified by...well...something.  Ephraim grows obsessed by just what in the hell is going on at the lighthouse peak, and why Thomas is keeping what appears to be a euphorically pleasurable experience all to himself.  Thomas seems steadfast in his unwillingness to let Ephraim up there.  Their initially petty disagreements with one another soon festers into boiling cauldrons of mutual hate, with an uneasy feeling that violence could erupt between the pair at any waking moment.  When the last day of their work assignment comes a violent storm crashes down on the island, threatening a longer term stay, which becomes the straw that broke the camel's back as far as Ephraim losing his grasp of sanity. 

I'd hate to reveal too much more about the basic plot here (as far too many critics have done to spoilerific effect), other than to say that THE LIGHTHOUSE simultaneously goes down narrative paths that are expected and completely unexpected.  What begins as a quaint little period drama fully emerges as a dive into the deepest and hellish pits of psychological horror.  At its core, THE LIGHTHOUSE is about what happens to two men when they've grown utterly sick of one another when forced to share the same confined work space for far too long, with added surreal and supernatural elements thrown in.  A lot of horror films throw violence at the screen in hopes of garnering a visceral reaction, but THE LIGHTHOUSE is of a decidedly different and rare breed: It makes you feel as queasy and anxious as these two hopelessly doomed men, and Eggers wisely understands the existentialist trauma that can occur when two people slowly drive each other insane.  Yes, there are many - shall me say - weird and unexplainable occurrences on this island that play mind games on these men, but the true horror in THE LIGHTHOUSE is in witnessing the total lonesomeness of these poor souls, both of whom have no other outlet to turn to but themselves.  And when both grow to despise each other, that makes for one volatile predicament; this allows for Eggers' film to become terrifying in highly atypical ways. 

The director also walks a very slippery slope between total absurdity and fairly straightforward and grounded storytelling, but he miraculously manages to find a tough happy medium.  THE LIGHTHOUSE is an unbearably suffocating thriller about isolation, but is also darkly hilarious at times, especially when it comes to the joyously vulgar dialogue that Eggers gives these seamen, which seems both eloquently germane to their time period on top of being abusively crude ("You smell like curdled foreskin!" Ephraim screams at Thomas at one point, whereas he - during a different stage in the story - instructs Ephraim to clean the lighthouse so well that it "sparkles like a sperm whale's pecker!").  Beyond being unpredictably and riotously funny, THE LIGHTHOUSE still manages to curdle with Kubrickian terror in showcasing how the pair's work environment - and long distance from any other human being - pummels these men into pathetic physical and mental submission.  The audience doesn't just passively watch these events...we actively experience them to horrific effect. 

THE LIGHTHOUSE is both beautiful and frightening as a visual odyssey.  Compellingly, Eggers opted to shoot his film (using real locations in Nova Scotia) employing lush black and white cinematography and a tight, boxlike 1.19:1 aspect ratio that harkens back to the Golden Age of filmmaking well before the advent of widescreen visuals.  The relative frame size is crucial, I think, because it's a constrictive ratio with not as much screen real estate as modern formats, which visually helps reinforce the story of the island closing in to destroy these men from the inside out.  That, and there's an ethereal dreamlike quality to black and white that's impossible to duplicate with the literalness of color photography, which greatly adds to this film's mystique of the unexplainable that may or may not be figments of the characters' respective imaginations.  THE LIGHTHOUSE may not be brimming with as much glossy and expensive looking visual effects on obligatory overkill as other horror films, but it's nevertheless completely mesmerizing in all of its monochromatic glory and shows Eggers unafraid to take creative chances. 

THE LIGHTHOUSE is also an unqualified actor's paradise, and it would have to be seeing as it's basically a two man show.  Dafoe has given so many superlative performances over his illustrious career, but what he achieves here is so much more transformative and immersive.  In a lesser actor's hands, Thomas could have become a pathetically one-note buffoon that plays up to old timey, pipe smoking sea captain clichés, but Dafoe has the very tricky task of making Thomas both relentlessly aggravating as a thorn in Ephraim's side and a source of limitless coarse humor in the film.  Thomas is one of the saltiest characters I've seen in a long while, but one that's oddly inviting at the same time, which is in large thanks to Dafoe revealing hidden depths to this character as the film progresses.  Pattinson arguably has the more thankless and less flashy role as Ephraim, who has to evoke an initially soft spoken and submissive man that begins the film as an abused punching bag for his boss that later accepts the sheer lunacy of what's transpiring around them and takes violent charge with reckless abandon.  If his gritty and nuaced performances that embrace chaos and darkness in films like this and also HIGH LIFE (from earlier this year) aren't enough to convince you of Pattinson's abilities to effectively take on the role of Batman in the upcoming reboot...then nothing will. 

If there's one thing that will hold back THE LIGHTHOUSE from lay filmgoers it's the fact that it'll be too off puttingly weird and esoteric for some, especially for lovers of mainstream horror.  Many will also find the film's unconventional and unorthodox ending (that ambiguously never answers many of the film's nagging questions) to be a head shaking conundrum.  Don't count me among these people, because THE LIGHTHOUSE is a gloriously realized and extraordinarily well made fever dream of a psychological horror thriller that's very hard to shake off well after I left the cinema.  It's a work that further establishes and all but cements Eggers as a filmmaker of exquisite refinement and skills, not to mention that he has a highly unique voice as far as contemporary horror goes that works well against the grain of the many that slavishly work within the genre's more exacerbating conventions.  THE LIGHTHOUSE is like a nightmare come disturbingly to life, and one that grows all the more unsettling as it careens towards its final feverously intense moments.  

And I'm still hearing that damn foghorn in the mind days after my screening.  This movie has done for lighthouses what JAWS did for sharks and swimming at beaches.    

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