"The Lighthouse" (2019) - Review

Updated on July 20, 2020
Ethan J Wheeler profile image

Ethan is a screenwriter in Lincoln, NE. Studied Film and Media Studies at Arizona State Unversity with an emphasis on writing.

Directed by Robert Eggers

Genre - Horror

Runtime – 1h 50m

Motifs – Masculinity and Homoeroticism

Theme – Isolation and Power

Where to Stream: Amazon Prime

Content Warning: Masturbation (and other similar sexual imagery), Gaslighting

General Review

This film is…simultaneously perplexing and mesmerizing. I simply could not look away even as the emotional performances Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shift frantically between somber/quiet and bombastic belittlement. Critics applaud the use of the hyper-confining 1.19:1 aspect ratio – creating a frame much smaller than modern audiences are used to - and the orthoscopic aesthetic (a form of black/white filmmaking generally seen in early filmmaking) providing the dark, eerie atmosphere of the lighthouse. And that’s precisely how I would attempt to define this film – eerie. Eerie not only refers to the horrors of what we see on our screens, but also how the film intentionally misguides the viewer. At zero point throughout the film do we know enough about any particular person, place, or thing to make any real, objective conclusion of it all. Which is why, I believe, this film will be very divisive.

If you’re the type of horror buff that enjoys the theory-crafting aspect of filmmaking, then you’ll be extremely entertained by this film. If not, then you might think this film is, as my wonderful significant other stated, “whack.” Regardless of why you venture out to witness the horrors of the screen, The Lighthouse has excellent character performances, brilliant storytelling, and a hauntingly beautiful set design that will surely imprint itself in your mind for days after viewing.

Overall Score: 46/50

Criterion Analysis

Narrative – 9/10

The Lighthouse is set in the late 1800s on a New England island and follows Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) as he begins a new quest as an apprentice lighthouse keeper under the tutelage of Thomas (Willem Dafoe), a former – now constantly inebriated – sea captain. The film immediately shows how antagonistic these two men are to each other – setting up the eventual degradation of their relationship. Winslow is subjugated to mundane chores, harsh weathers, and a particularly annoying one-eyed seagull who can’t seem to leave him alone. All the while, Thomas spends all of his time at the head of the lighthouse, basking (sometimes naked) in the light. As Winslow’s apprenticeship comes to an end – after weeks of mistreatment from Thomas and simply not having the best of times – he takes out his residual anger and frustration on the one-eyed seagull by violently (emphasis on violently) ending its life. This seemingly isolated event of the killing of the seagull paves the way for the two characters to fall into the on-screen Hell we see for the next hour and a half. Winslow was supposed to be picked up by a ship after his apprenticeship ended, but, after killing the seagull, a massive storm approaches in the distance and a thick fog covers the already musky island.

As the storm approaches, the film focuses squarely on the descent of their relationship, of Winslow’s sanity, their identities, time, power, etc. For Winslow and Thomas, the film will not cease to let up – any breaks in tension are immediately followed up by some form of devastation. By the end of the film, both Winslow and Thomas are on their last remaining thread of humanity.

Parallel to this descent, screenwriter brothers Robert and Max Eggers intricately tie a form of hyper-masculine homoeroticism to these characters in uncomfortable, and - sometimes - familiar ways. Thomas constantly gaslights Winslow, they get drunk together, singing and dancing with each other in their arms, the lighthouse is a particularly phallic presence, and a high-strung Patterson masturbating on screen. They even bicker with each other as if they were a married couple of many years. If one were to combine the elements at play here – the homoeroticism, descent into devilishness, masculinity, etc. – one gets the sense we are on an audio-visual journey bearing witness to men defining their identity when they exclusively only interact, compare themselves to, and emulate other men. What we’re left with is a feeling of distraught and disillusionment with one’s own existence in ways we are not privy to, stemming from witnessing Lighthouse’s horror contemporaries.

One last point of comparison: allusions to godliness. The lighthouse serves as a beacon of enlightenment, holy redemption, and heavenly beauty for both Winslow and Thomas. More interestingly is who wields the power of the light. Another aspect running deep within the sinking crevasses of Thomas and Winslow’s relationship is a feeling of an asymmetric power imbalance. Winslow wishes to see the light of the lighthouse, but Thomas actively and aggressively forbids it – deeming Winslow unworthy of beholding it. Thomas acts as St. Peter – the holy guardian of the gates of heaven. This thematic through line also has its roots in modernist art depicting God’s will on His people’s obedience. I say this as there are many frames from the film that are near picture-perfect recreations of those works of art (more famously, the recreation of Sascha Schneider’s 1904 painting Hypnosis pictured below).

This is where I detract a point solely due to how ambiguous the third act is. By all means, I certainly enjoy watching films with an unintelligible ending for interpretative purposes. While I can admire how difficult an attempt to bring the aforementioned themes together to a satisfying conclusion would be, I believe the authors absolutely could have been clearer about what sort of lessons the audience was meant to learn and, with such clarity, a more solid conclusion to the narrative could be drawn. Without spoiling the film, the third act absolutely lives up to the horrible mess the Eggers brothers build up to; however, ideologically speaking, there is no concise nor consistent conclusion one can arrive at when interpreting the film, and subsequently, the ending may end up alienating many members of the audience – tarnishing the film’s timelessness in the process.

Cinematography – 10/10

For a film with very little going on in terms of mobile complexity (i.e. the camera is relatively stationary throughout the film), the voice of the camera could not be clearer – nor louder – than it consistently is throughout the 2-hour runtime of The Lighthouse. Technically speaking, a camera’s movement is to describe inner character monologues without dialogue or narration. When a character stands and the camera “looks up” to keep their face in the frame, the audience feels the oppressive presence of the character looking down upon us. Winslow is almost constantly in this position of being looked down upon.

Whenever Winslow is working, the camera tracks him in such a way where he is never leaving a particular part of the frame, but the world around him travels in and out of not only the frame, but focus as well. This particular technique drives the disillusionment and the struggle for an identity Winslow goes through throughout the film. Never in touch with the world around him, his work and the lighthouse are the only aspects of his world he seems to be able to focus on.

Then there’s the powerful emergence of the abusive old sea captain. Thomas never seems to stop being an overwhelmingly powerful presence in every scene he is in. From the camera looking up at him, showing more of his elaborately decorated body - and allowing Thomas to travel through the cabin he lives in without particular focus – all play into a narrative of control and power. The oppressive atmosphere is thus attributed to how the camera moves and how Eggers decides to frame the characters and their environment.

Film Design – 10/10

Camera movement and framing do not solely carry the oppressive weight of the film. The entire design of the film is simply masterful. As I had stated previously, the aspect ratio and the orthoscopic aesthetic of the film is critical in creating a claustrophobic environment where the contrast between light/darkness is extremely clear – i.e. shadows are black voids of nothingness and if any light is shown, it colors the scene is a brightness that drowns the overbearing clouds in the sky. A lot of work needed to take place in order to get this aesthetic perfect – orthoscopic camerawork cannot film red light well, so blood would appear as dark as black. Additionally, the set designers would have to pay extremely careful attention to sources of light and how bright those lights would be, otherwise the contrast in the world could be very underwhelming/overwhelming for the audience to glean anything in the story itself.

Camerawork aside, costumes are on-point here. I truly believe Willem Dafoe was an old sea captain in a previous life based purely on how he looks in this film. The sound design is phenomenal – when Thomas invoked Neptune’s wrath upon Winslow, a clap of roaring thunder can be heard in the background. Props, sound, costumes, light crew, grips, etc. all had to perfectly balance these aspects of design to convey the loneliness, oppression, and distraught found at the dark heart of this film – and they succeeded in my eyes.

Performances – 9/10

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson’s performances are a spectacle worthy of all the acclaim they’ve been given, and certainly will continue to get in their future works. Here we see them don a form of madness likening to a hyper-masculine and power-trippy version of Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000) – and the two of them dwell on this madness in the most imprecise ways possible. They slur their words constantly, their dances are drunken, their minds are unfocused, their attempts to grapple each other are thwarted by a sneaking sense of romantic tension. Dafoe and Pattinson bore their souls for this script and the effect is striking.

Specifically, Dafoe spoke in a period-accurate accent that puts previous cinema-pirate incarnations to shame (I’m looking at you Pirates of the Caribbean). Subsequently, as fun as it was listening to Dafoe speak in such a way, it is at times particularly hard to understand them. The combination of drunken slurs, unusual accents, and even more unusual sea-related jargon can leave more unfamiliar audiences equally confused and blindsided when events on screen inevitably escalate. I take a point off here for this reason. Most audiences will likely need subtitles to fully comprehend the film – I can only imagine the pain foreign language interpreters must feel when making a subbed/dubbed version of the film.

Editing – 9/10

The purpose of editing is to fluidly show the narrative in a logical way that doesn’t jerk our attention from the narrative and unto the meta-aspects of the film itself. I will not spend much time here since I believe the film does an excellent job conveying a logical story (even with its lapses in logic inherent in the plot).

However, I do want to point out the problems of the third act again. The film is by no means terrible in the third act, it’s just as enjoyable as it was in previous acts. However, as was the case with the general awkwardness of the narrative, shots and scenes are seemingly haphazardly thrown together. Of course, this may be thematic consistency (characters are not sane, so why would the editor be?). For instance, there are a few montage sequences of spooky/horror images and brief showings of sea mythology that are rather messily implemented. I would go as far as to say they were wholly unnecessary for the purposes of the themes of the film – meaning I detract a point here from otherwise flawless execution.

Cumulative Rating: 46/50 – Phenomenal, well worth paying for multiple viewings


Additional Resources:

https://filmmakermagazine.com/108449-a-black-and-white-movie-in-a-stupid-aspect-ratio-robert-eggers-on-the-lighthouse/#.Xvd-_ihKhpg – An interview with Robert Eggers about the general reception of the film in the festival realm

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