Robert Eggers’s unsettling psychological drama/horror The Lighthouse has had a lot of rave reviews. It’s only fair that I burst this bubble a little, as this is absolutely not a film for everyone. Those searching for fright-a-minute jump scares will be sorely disappointed, as will anyone who lacks the patience for what is, unquestionably, an uncompromising, offbeat, slow, surreal, but compelling watch.
Shot in claustrophobic monochrome in an almost square 1:19 Aspect Ratio by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, the threadbare plot involves little more than lighthouse keepers (or “wickies”) Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Winslow (Robert Pattinson) taking charge of a lighthouse off the Canadian coast, sometime in the late 19th Century, and slowly going round the bend. Wake is the superior officer; a flatulent old sea dog type who insists Winslow has all the gruelling skivvy work whilst he tends the light. This proves a bone of contention, but amid their quarrelling and fighting, they also bond when drunk, telling stories about their past that may or may not be true. They also ruminate over seafaring superstitions – most importantly the lore that states killing a gull is bad luck, as they carry the spirits of those killed at sea. Their bleak, mundane, isolated routine gradually gives way to a madness that recalls The Shining, in that the previous wickie supposedly went crazy and disappeared.
With very strong central performances, dialogue that at times recalls Melville or even Shakespeare, and the kind of disturbing images that lodge deep in the consciousness, The Lighthouse certainly isn’t a film you’ll forget in a hurry. The descent into madness is vivid and visceral, and features some left turns into the bizarre that recall everything from David Lynch to Greek mythology and more. I must confess I preferred Eggers previous film The Witch (that one really rattled me). However, The Lighthouse oozes atmosphere to the point where you can all but smell the sea salt amid the fog horns, and howling, rain-swept winds battering the remote, weather-worn outpost. That you may long to escape this peculiar lighthouse purgatory as much as the characters is testament to how strong the film really is. No easy watch then, but another very strong piece of work from Eggers.
UK Certificate: 15
US Certificate: R
Content Warnings: Sex, nudity, violence, gore, strong language, disturbing images.