REVIEW – ‘The Lighthouse’ is sardonically dark, yet somehow wickedly exhilarating

In the horror genre, a sophomore film is the ultimate test for a filmmaker who dazzled with their terrifying debut work. After both Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Ari Aster (Hereditary) respectively knocked it out of the park with Us and Midsommar in 2019, all eyes turn to Robert Eggers, whose tense and disturbing 2016 film The Witch is a mighty tough act to follow.

With only his second offering, Eggers stakes his claim as one of the most exciting young filmmakers working today, proving his previous work was only a taste of the twisted greatness to come. Every bit as atmospherically unnerving as his debut film, The Lighthouse is another macabre Gothic masterpiece that slowly builds to a divisive chaotic final act sure to elicit many a conversation.

Almost like an Edgar Allen Poe (whose final unfinished short story shares the same title) work brought to life, The Lighthouse is sardonically dark, yet somehow wickedly exhilarating. A visually stunning piece of cinema, Eggers offers a waking nightmare that consistently subverts expectation, as it barrels along its turbulent journey into the shocking bowels of insanity.

Set in the late 19th century, young Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) has been contracted for a four-week stint working as an apprentice lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the New England coast, under the supervision of crusty veteran “wickie” Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). A pipe-smoking former seaman plagued by a mysterious leg injury and a bad case of gas, the stern Thomas runs a tight ship, immediately making life hell for Ephraim, particularly by refusing to allow him anywhere near the lighthouse beacon.

While Thomas maniacally keeps the lighthouse beam burning bright, Ephraim is tasked with all manner of laborious chores including emptying his master’s chamber pot, cleaning every inch of the lighthouse’s exterior, and fetching heavy kerosene tanks from the basement, all while dealing with a flock of pesky seagulls intent on driving Ephraim mad. It’s going to be a long four weeks.

While Ephraim tries in vain to keep out of Thomas’ way, the two eventually form a twisted friendship, stoked by regularly drinking sessions where shocking secrets are unveiled including the revelation Thomas’ former assistant died of lunacy after enduring a series of strange visions. When Ephraim begins to experience disturbing visions and nightmares of his own including those of a beautiful mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), he suspects he may be headed for a similar fate.

A slow-burn descent into claustrophobic madness, The Lighthouse is every bit as breathtaking as it is unsettling. At times, it can be somewhat of an endurance test that will likely be too much for some viewers, but this is pure Eggers who takes deft delight in tormenting an audience with another cavalcade of nightmarish imagery that will haunt your mind for days to come. It’s a film where very little makes a lick of sense, but that’s part of the uproarious fun.

As delusion begins to wrap its tentacles (that will make sense once you see the film) around Ephraim, we are besieged by a series of monstrous and striking imagery that’s both gloriously electrifying and terribly disconcerting. Eggers pushes an audience to levels of disorientation that perfectly match the cabin fever our two protagonists are experiencing. The lines between reality and illusion are consistently blurred, crafting a film that will likely leave you in a state of sheer delirium yourself.

Leading this film are two astonishing performances from Pattinson and Dafoe, both embarrassingly ignored by the Academy this year. Ephraim and Thomas create a decidedly odd pairing with the simmering tension broken by drunken bouts of frivolity that consistently border on hidden homoeroticism. Honestly, at times, it’s difficult to tell if the two will wind up killing each other or hopping into bed together. Or perhaps even both.

Thomas is the surly, cantankerous mariner who’s clearly seen some shit in his life. With a wildly dishevelled mane of hair and a hefty beard that would make any man jealous, he’s completely unhinged and entirely unpredictable, which makes Dafoe the perfect casting choice for such an eccentric character. In a career of transformative performances, Dafoe truly outdoes himself here. Thomas constantly speaks in confusing riddles and all manner of salty sea language, all barked out by Dafoe with such ferocious power. It’s one of the most intimidating performances you will ever witness.

Continuing his wildly impressive post-Twilight career renaissance, Pattinson is equally impressive here, crafting Ephraim as a complex mix of contradictions and secrets, which Eggers slowly begins to unravel over the course of the film. It’s a mesmerising performance full of confusion, dread, and uncertainty, as Ephraim’s time on the island metamorphosis into something deeply troubling. There’s something seething beneath Ephraim’s stoic demeanour, and when Pattinson is given full permission to let it fly, the result is simply breathtaking. If you still need proof he’s the man to inherit the Batman mantle, prepare to eat your words.

What is decidedly unexpected is Eggers choice to insert moments of black comedy into The Lighthouse, showcasing a filmmaker with an immense gift for tone control. Make no mistake, this is often a miserably bleak film. Yet, it’s hard not to find yourself laughing at some of the film’s more absurd sequences, particularly when dramatic moments are undercut by one of Thomas’ perfectly-timed farts. Flatulence humour may be low brow in many people’s book, but strangely it works so ridiculously well here.

Co-written by the director with his brother Max Eggers, the screenplay is a calamity of themes that could warrant their own lengthy essay. It’s a narrative which touches upon repression, isolation, alcoholism, trauma, grief, toxic masculinity, surrealism, mythology, expressionism, and lord knows what else future viewings will uncover. It’s a meticulous creation where nothing appears by chance and every production and narrative element likely has deeper intent from a filmmaker whose work demands to be analysed.

On a production level, The Lighthouse is a stunning visual creation, all shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jarin Blaschke in black-and-white and the classic boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, giving the entire composition a gorgeous authentic vintage feel. The curious choice of aspect ratio only adds to the film’s constant claustrophobic atmosphere, making every shot feel incredibly visceral. Blaschke films the desolate island with such beautiful grandeur, capturing the darkest blacks and dazzling whites with impeccable skill. But it’s his tight close-ups of both Pattinson and Dafoe that are truly impressive, consistently offering intimate portraits of two men at the edge of their patience and sanity.

This one won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who are willing to let go and be taken on Eggers’ bizarre, contorted, and terrifying journey, The Lighthouse is a marvellously enjoyable delight. It will be easy to ponder what it all means, but it’s far more fun to just surrender to the magic in front of your eyes. If nothing else, it’s captivating to watch Pattinson and Dafoe go toe-to-toe, elevated further by the luscious production values surrounding their terrific performances.

Eggers has deftly proven his innate knack for offering cinema overflowing with imagery you won’t soon forget. If that’s not the mark of a master of the art of filmmaking, nothing is. The Lighthouse will leave you bewildered and disorientated, which is entirely how Eggers wants it. It’s that rare breed of film that can terrify as much as it can excite. Much like his debut work, this is a piece of macabre cinema that will envelop your mind and refuse to let go. And you may never look at a seagull the same ever again.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman
Director: Robert Eggers
Producers: Rodrigo Teixeira, Jay Van Hoy, Robert Eggers, Lourenco Sant’Anna, Youree Henley
Screenplay: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
Production Design: Craig Lathrop
Costume Design: Linda Muir
Music: Mark Korven

Editing: Louise Ford
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: 6th February 2020 (Australia)

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