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The Lighthouse
First run Theater cinema

The sophomore feature from Robert Eggers, whose The Witch (2016) was one of the more intriguing low-budget horror débuts of a decade replete with many such offerings, is another tale from the New England of a bygone era. Set off the coast of Maine in the late 19th century, The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse tenders living alone in the keeper’s cottage on a  craggy, storm-swept rock. Dafoe is wonderful as the salty senior “wikie” Thomas Wake, a role that seems tailor-made for his distinctive, committed approach to his craft. Pattinson, an actor always up for a challenge, is a bit less convincing as a former Canadian timberman named Ephraim Winslow attempting lightkeeping for the first time. The simple premise is that it’s never a good idea to isolate two grown men inside a giant white phallus for weeks on end.

Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Max, delights in creating a film that seems designed to be either loved or hated—though I found it difficult to feel too strongly about it either way. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white 35mm in the absurdly narrow 1.19:1 aspect ratio (a format created in the “talky” era when the sides of some silent films were cropped from their original 1.33:1 ratio to make room for an optical soundtrack) the movie certainly succeeds in evoking both the time period and the maddening claustrophobia experienced by the protagonists. But the film lacks the element of build that makes most great movies about madness successful because it starts off almost as deliriously as it ends. From the first shot of Defoe and Pattinson arriving through the thick fog at the foreboding rock that hosts the lighthouse they will be tending, we may already be deep inside a fever dream. 

This is, of course, a deliberate choice, but it hinders the film’s ability to depict a descent into madness. The experience of The Lighthouse is less of a glimpse into insanity than the sensation of a young director throwing everything he’s got at the screen and leaving things up to the audience to interpret—unlike the splendid, controlled ambiguity on display in The Witch.

Still, there’s much to appreciate about film. As with his previous picture, Eggers researched the period extensively and pulls ideas, legends, folklore, and specific lines of dialogue from published authors and amateur writings of the era—in this case including handbooks and logs of 19th century lighthouse keepers from Maine. The gleeful Dafoe wraps his false teeth and blackened tongue around these monologues like a drunken Robert Shaw giving a dramatic recitation of selections from Moby Dick. The production design by Craig Lathrop, who built the sets from scratch in Nova Scotia, is a contender for the year’s best. Damian Volpe’s wild sound design envelops the viewer and contributes to our sense of derangement. The performances Eggers coaxes from seagulls rival that of the demonic goat in The Witch. There is also a good deal of humor in this film. If only the craft prominently on display in this picture didn’t overpower the ideas within it.

Twitter Capsule:
Eggers follows up his sublime The Witch with another tale from a bygone era, this one about two isolated lighthouse keepers. The impressive craft in this sophomore effort overpowers the themes and ideas, but we're treated to one hell of a performance from Dafoe!

Directed by Robert Eggers
Produced by Rodrigo Teixeira, Youree Henley, Jay Van Hoy, Robert Eggers, and Lourenço Sant' Anna

Written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers

With: Willem Dafoe, and Robert Pattinson

Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
Editing: Louise Ford
Music: Mark Korven

Runtime: 109 min
Release Date: 18 October 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.19 : 1
Black and White