Movie Review: The Lighthouse
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Director: Robert Eggers
by Jason Koenigsberg
Three years ago writer/director Robert Eggers made one of the most captivating and haunting movies of recent years with his confident feature film debut The Witch (2016). Now he has returned as well as his confidence and bravado with his atmospheric second film The Lighthouse. This time his name managed to attract big stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson to sign up for a most unusual journey as two lighthouse keepers on a remote island off the coast of New England. Not only did he secure these big name talents but he also managed to get two of their most unhinged and uninhibited performances from them. Both Dafoe and Pattinson let themselves go wild on screen in The Lighthouse and the bravery in their performances make this movie worth seeing. It is a showcase for their talent more than an actual narrative.
The opening shot of The Lighthouse is an unclear square image that the viewer eventually learns is the actual lighthouse and we then see the two main characters on a ship heading towards the island where they are to be stationed for the next four weeks. The cinematography stands out for being shot in full frame and not widescreen 1:85 ratio like most features but also for being predominantly in black and white with only tinted hues of blue and sometimes a hint of warmer colors like reddish, yellow, and orange in some brief moments. The sound design is even more powerful and distracting of waves crashing, birds squawking, and horns blaring loud enough to drive our main characters mad and to give the viewer a sense of existential dread. Eggers is experimenting a lot with the images and sounds he throws at us and manages to create a nightmare that is somewhat effective but is completely sold by the actors selling the drama in every confrontation they have. He also seems to have a strong affection for isolated New England historical places and folklore. The Witch took place during the 1600’s in the wilderness away from Plymouth colony and The Lighthouse is in the 1890’s New England. Maybe a few films from now he will make it to the 21st century somewhere outside of Boston.
The whole time watching The Lighthouse the viewer will never really know what is real and what is not and that is part of the fun of these kinds of movies. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson go head to head and are screaming at each other for a good portion of the movie. It is a slow descent into madness, moreso for Pattinson since the story is told through his eyes. Dafoe looks and acts more eccentric than his costar and goes further with his accent never saying “you” but always “ye”. Listen closely and he does not ever break that dialect and he certainly shouts “ye” a lot. Willem Dafoe has sort of turned into an arthouse leading man specialist in recent years with his Oscar nominated turns in The Florida Project (2017), At Eternity’s Gate (2018), and now this film. It is unlikely he will get a third consecutive Oscar nomination for The Lighthouse but his performance here is every bit as memorable as those two. This is not a typical awards bait movie but it is a good choice of entertainment for those that long for something unique, original, energetic, and disturbingly artistic. The final shot is a real winner and making a statement about mankind’s struggle to control nature when we cannot even control ourselves. In the end the movie itself does not add up to much, the style is intentionally distracting but the reason The Lighthouse succeeds more than flounders is because of the performances that bring humor to the darkness and claustrophobia even though both our main characters lose their grip on their humanity.
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