The Lighthouse review – madness in monochrome

Robert Eggers' visionary second feature is a freaky, funny, and brilliantly-acted maritime nightmare

If Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote “Hell is other people,” here is the hallucinogenic, waterlogged ordeal of a picture to prove it. The Lighthouse is Robert Eggers’ deviously brilliant follow-up to his terrifying horror hit, The Witch, a film whose unexpected critical and commercial success – it made $40 million on a $4 million budget – has given him the license to let his imagination run wild. Boy, does he let it run.

It almost feels futile to try and put The Lighthouse, a nautical fever dream of excessive facial hair, wandering accents, bloody confrontations, mermaid fetishes, excessive monologues, nightmares, and hangovers, into words. It announces itself right off the boat with an eerie, unabating foghorn, and plays out – creaking, like an old ship – as a two-hour-long orgy of sick, shit, blood, piss, jism, and salty spray. Confined to dark, claustrophobic spaces that liken the film to that of a lost stage play, it’s also a scenery-chewing (and scenery-smashing) descent into madness that – with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, both on unruly, mesmeric form – gives us two of the year’s best performances.

As our only characters in this eerie two-hander, Wake (Dafoe) and Winslow (Pattinson) arrive on a solitary island off the coast of 19th century New England to maintain its lighthouse for a four week spell. Both have enigmatic pasts and mysterious motives, though they are drawn equally, like moths to a flame, to the bewitching glow atop the lighthouse of the title. Dafoe, a grizzled sea captain straight out of Melville, leads proceedings with an iron fist; Pattinson, begrudgingly, sets about on the menial tasks. It isn’t long before strange things start to happen and the lines between what’s real and what’s not begin to blur. Slowly but surely, over long nights spent chugging whisky, the two men begin to turn on one another.

Ignoring conventional story beats, Eggers sets out, instead, to deliver an atmospheric character piece built from barbarous insults and sudden flashes of violence, defying expectations with the sheer clarity of his manic, monochrome vision. Is what we’re seeing horror? At times, it definitely feels like it. But The Lighthouse is also a psychological thriller, a fantasy, and – most of all, perhaps – a comedy. For a film so willing to probe the dark interior of man, The Lighthouse is laugh-out-loud funny. Dafoe and Pattinson share wonderful comic chemistry, and their constant bickering – though dramatically weighty when it needs be – is genuinely hilarious, neither man afraid to go bigger in an attempt to outdo the other. Whilst Dafoe plays a more consistently bad-tempered sea dog, Pattinson starts quietly and allows his performance to grow into something vast and uncontrollable, as though desperate to break free from the film’s boxy, 4:3 aspect ratio.

The sheer texture and detail of the images negates any sense that any of this is pure gimmick. And while Eggers’ decision to shoot in black and white might evoke the vintage horror of the past, it’s no simple homage, either. As The Lighthouse barrels towards its shocking, stomach-splitting finale – waves crashing on rocks, gulls squawking ceaselessly in the peripherals – there can be no doubt that what we’re witnessing is something fiercely and deliriously original.

This film was screened to the press as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. It is released in UK cinemas on January 31st, 2020.

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