“The Lighthouse” – Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his eerie, creepy horror film “The Witch” (2015) (4/4 stars) is an equally eerie, creepy drama about two weathered men watching over a lonely lighthouse.
There’s little doubt that this visual feast sets a disturbing tone, as “The Lighthouse” has an Ingmar Bergman-“Hour of the Wolf”-thing working greatly in its favor. Filmed entirely in black and white and almost exclusively with a 1:1 aspect ratio (or very close to it), Eggers delivers a horrible sense of doom on a teeny, tiny island near the coast of who knows where (although, imdb.com says that New England is the setting) around the turn of the 19th century. The cloudy, windy weather never seems to break, and for anyone hoping for a pleasant four-week stay in calm isolation, a one-way trip to a federal prison under solitary confinement is a better alternative.
Two lighthouse keepers – a crusty, elderly Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and a young, brooding Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) – willingly choose to occupy their time on this rock and tend to a loyal lamp for nearly a month. This seems simple enough, except Wake constantly barks orders at Winslow, and “please” and “thank you” aren’t listed in his personal dictionary, so his protégé’s patience wears terribly thin, like an arsonist standing in a barn full of hay while eyeing a book of matches at his feet.
Wake and Winslow’s partnership could become violently combustible at any moment, but the painfully long 109-minute runtime feels a lot closer to the aforementioned four weeks.
Well, most moviegoers will easily predict the film’s conclusion after four minutes, so the hook has to reside with Wake and Winslow’s journey, and the screenplay purposely sends the audience into confusion. When’s he’s not pushing a heavy wheelbarrow, climbing a ladder to fix some roof shingles or running around to complete dozens of other chores, Winslow succumbs to bizarre visions of his troubling past during his downtime. Meanwhile, Wake has zero self-reflection on his gruff – but not malicious – temperament. He makes Winslow work long days but then shares several drinks for long, boisterous evenings, as the two sometimes burst into drunken-song, so their relationship is a seesaw of extremes.
The good and bad times don’t seem to follow a designed pattern, however, so Eggers leads us into madness of sorts, and reality becomes opaque. His camera lens certainly is not, as he captures truly haunting images throughout the picture and dazzles us with framing. He also plays with light, as “The Lighthouse” doesn’t exactly feel like a black and white picture. Instead, it’s filled with miserable shades of gray.
This is a film-lover’s movie. A visual one, and Dafoe and Pattinson absolutely transform into two unrecognizable, memorable characters, but they are trapped in a directionless script. Other than the obvious end, writers Robert and Max Eggers don’t offer any guardrails for the audience, so the barrages of endless, tiresome confrontations and occasional warped dream sequences lack focus and coherence.
Similar to last year’s “Suspiria”, there is something deeper afoot from beginning to end. Eggers has a master plan at work, but in the moment, it’s not easy to grasp. Multiple viewings are mostly likely needed, and keen attention to Wake’s constant diatribes should be a top priority. Then again, Eggers may be simply diving into deep oceans of self-indulgence.
These are legitimate arguments…for someone else. For this critic, “The Lighthouse” is a rudderless waste of time.
⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: A24