Director: Robert Eggers
Writers: Robert Eggers and Max Eggers
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman
Two lighthouse keepers (Pattinson and Dafoe) try to keep their sanity whilst tending a lighthouse on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
As a visual medium, cinema can be very unique, and the tools at the disposal of a director to create their vision are equally unique. For example, a novel obviously relies on the written word for a description of what happens within the story, and sometimes that can be a very detailed description of exactly what a character goes through. Well, for a film (though sometimes there is a tendency to rely on painfully clunky exposition voice-overs), a director has a camera to depict the experience of the story’s main characters, and there is no denying that during the narrative events of The Lighthouse director Robert Eggers certainly does this very effectively.
From start to finish, there is no denying that we do feel like we are stuck on the remote island with the two characters and share their various experiences (some pleasant, some unpleasant and some beyond rational description), as both the sounds and the images created in The Lighthouse generate an unforgettable and immersive narrative experience.
As with Eggers’ previous film The Witch, The Lighthouse is very much cinema for the senses; many of the developments of the actual narrative are often beyond logical explanation, and to try and find logic within many areas of the narrative may well mean missing the actual point. The narrative events of The Lighthouse are certainly open to interpretation, and this enigmatic approach means that a viewer’s overall experience of what they get out of The Lighthouse may well depend on what that they are willing to put in.
Thanks to the sounds and the images, those willing to go with Eggers’ vision and approach will find ample rewards. It is an often intoxicating film filled with many haunting and unforgettable moments and images that allow us to share the character’s anxieties and fears, even if we may not ever be 100% sure why we share them, and indeed due to the obscure nature of Eggers’ storytelling, different viewers may well have different reasons for why they ultimately have the same feelings of fear and anxiety. One of the film’s main themes is of course madness, which by its very nature lacks logic, and so many of the narrative events in-turn also lack rational logic.
The Lighthouse is without a doubt a film that should be seen on the big screen to truly appreciate its immersive visual qualities; the monochrome visuals and narrow screen ratio add to sense of strangulating loneliness and isolation that gradually consumes both of the characters, while the sound design is just stunning; the sounds of the wind, the waves and especially the island’s deafening fog horn create an unnerving and unavoidable sense of dread that consumes everything.
Of course, for a film like this to work it relies on the performances, and Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe deliver the kind of performances that has come to be expected from these two superbly talented and diverse actors. As the two characters test one-another it seems clear that the two actors equally test one another and push each other’s acting abilities. As the narrative develops, we get to know both characters and learn about them as they learn about each other, and thanks to the two exceptional performances we may not especially like either of them, but cannot help but be fascinated by them and how their relationship will develop (even if we may kind of have a hunch for how it will ultimately turn out). It is a shame that both did not receive Oscar nominations, as they would have been more deserving than some this year’s nominations.
Though (partly thanks to its ‘unique’ visual approach, though it’s not actually that unique as 2019’s Bait did something similar – albeit in a very different type of film) The Lighthouse has predictably become a darling of critics, but I would argue that it is not without its flaws; at 109 minutes the film often labours its point a little too much and some of the more repetitive parts of the narrative start to make the film more of an effort to watch than it really should be. Though repetition plays a key role within the narrative and is certainly a key factor in the character’s individual journeys, Eggers could have perhaps left a few of the scenes involving the two protagonists getting drunk, or Robert Pattinson pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with poo over some uneven ground on the cutting room floor. For me a film like this should not exceed 90 minutes, and I would argue that there are moments within The Lighthouse that just feel like unnecessary filler and make the overall experience more hard work than it should have been, which do slightly detract from all of the film’s plethora of unique and unforgettable moments.
However, despite its flaws, there is no denying that The Lighthouse is one of the most immersive, unforgettable and enigmatic cinematic experiences of recent times. It undoubtedly provides more questions than answers, but for those willing to partake in its unique styles there are ample rewards.
Cinema that is purely for the senses; it may intentionally lack narrative coherence, but despite perhaps being a good 20 minutes longer than it should be The Lighthouse is an unforgettable cinematic descent into metaphorical (and literal) madness. Now, mind those seagulls!