While the two-man story is almost commonplace on the stage, it’s rare to see something similar come to the big screen. It’s not all that shocking as there’s a lot more to work with in the medium of film and therefore the more subdued story could be seen as not utilizing the medium to its full potential. But every now and then a film comes along that takes that risk and goes ahead with the two-man story, The Lighthouse is that film, and it succeeds in everything it attempts.
Director: Robert Eggers
Release Date: October 18, 2019 (Limited) / October 25, 2019 (Wide)
The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as two lighthouse workers in New England in the late 19th century. Right from the start when we see the fog engulfed lighthouse island followed by the two leads staring out to a ship that is leaving behind the camera, we are drawn into the solitude of this place. The two men are alone and will continue to be alone for some time while they tend to their duties.
Slowly we are introduced to the small patch of rock these men inhabit and the rundown conditions they must endure. Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) is the new hire while Thomas Wake (Dafoe) is a seasoned old sailor who traded his life at sea for watching over her from the safety of land. Wake doesn’t make the introduction to lighthouse work easy for Winslow with casual beratement and heavy workload as well as a plethora of farts and generally surly behavior.
Pattinson and Dafoe play their roles to perfection. Pattinson has now received a full pardon from his time in the Twilight series as he shows he’s worlds above the young adult series with this impassioned and committed turn as a logger looking for a new start. It’s hard to say that Dafoe steals the movie since there are essentially only two actors but this feels like the role he was born to play. Wake is eccentric, pushy, and possibly mad from years of working the lighthouse and Dafoe revels in the opportunity at hand. There were times where Wake had long stretches of dialogue where I found myself mouth agape at the veracity and life Dafoe fused into his words. The two actors rose together to achieve the difficult task of conquering the two-man movie with flying colors.
Like The Witch before it, there’s an undercurrent of darkness that slithers beneath the surface of The Lighthouse. It’s not always visible, but you can feel its tentacles slowly moving up towards the characters. Whether it’s tales of former keepers going mad, annoying seabirds, or dark visions in the night, The Lighthouse keeps you unsettled almost directly from the start and doesn’t let go. Eggers really does a great job of never letting you get comfortable and it works so well to instill that arthouse horror feel.
There’s a lot of long stretches in The Lighthouse with little to no dialogue as the two characters are on different shifts and therefore a lot of time to themselves. While this may be a detriment to some, in the context of the movie it works wonders for instilling a sense of solitude in the viewer. The pacing is also kept erratic to push the feeling of not knowing how long the stay on the island has been for Wake and Winslow.
Aesthetically, the film is beautiful. Presented in the Oscar 4:3 ratio with a dark black and white palette, it feels like we’re looking through a window into the past, or at an extended nickelodeon reel that is showing us some real-life tale of horror off the coast of New England. The use of hard light is fantastically utilized to create a sharp contrast between light and dark, casting long shadows on the wizened old face of Dafoe’s Wake. There were times where I thought the 4:3 hindered the picture as there were some cramped shots but these only pushed the claustrophobic feeling even deeper into my experience.
As I stated in the Flixist fall preview, I’m the furthest thing from a horror fan. Knowing that the fact that I loved The Lighthouse as much as I did should speak to how great of a film it is. The use of American folklore combined with the terror of an angry unyielding sea brought to horrifying reality struck a nerve in me that blasted through my dislike of horror. I’ll be hard-pressed to find a movie I enjoy more this year than The Lighthouse.