The Lighthouse

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

The Lighthouse
dir Robert Eggers
scr Max Eggers, Robert Eggers
prd Robert Eggers, Youree Henley, Lourenco Sant'Anna, Rodrigo Teixeira, Jay Van Hoy
with Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman
release US 18.Oct.19,
UK 31.Jan.20
19/US 1h49

dafoe pattinson
london film fest

The Lighthouse
After The Witch, Robert Eggers takes on another set of legends with this seafaring shanty of a movie. Spectacularly shot in square-ratio black and white, the film brings some superbly freaky ideas into its claustrophobic and increasingly crazed story. Not all of it connects with viewers and, as it gets more manic, the movie does turn repetitive. But the mythical quality of the acting and filmmaking makes it utterly unforgettable.
Beginning a two-week stint on a tiny island off the New England coast, veteran Tommy (Dafoe) quickly shows young Winslow (Pattinson) who's boss, barring him from the top of the lighthouse and shouting orders like a pirate captain ("Swab, dog, swab!"). As the days pass, Winslow begins to fantasise about a mermaid (Karaman) while spying on Tommy and feuding with pesky seagulls. Although Tommy warns him that it's bad luck to kill sea birds, Tommy finally snaps at a gull. And the wind changes, bringing a relentless storm that eliminates any sense of time.
The grainy, harshly lit cinematography and 1890s period provide a mythical setting, feeding into both the day-to-day work of being a lighthouse keeper as well as the grist of conversations between these salty men who are jostling for control over each other. Many of their clashes feel so epic that they must be delusional, and their constant screaming rants become impenetrable as they wear the viewer out. But each shot looks so stunning in silvery monochrome that it's impossible to look away, even when things begin to get very, very nasty.

Performances match this style, cycling from gritty and real to heightened frenzy and back again. Both Pattinson and Dafoe seize their roles with full physicality, going for broke with their voices and bodies. This gives the film a terrific blackly comical undertone that occasionally becomes more deliberately overt, such as in Winslow's interaction with his nemesis gull, or the way alcohol makes these men both love and hate each other at the same time. There is never a question of whether each man believes the gibberish he is spouting.

Once again, Eggers proves at expert at bringing elemental cultural touchstones to vivid life on-screen. This film is based on exhaustive research of lighthouse keepers' experiences, and it effortlessly bears the weight of Coleridge's epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So even if what happens on-screen becomes a bit chaotic, the film is evocatively tapping into deeper references that connect with the viewer at the point where culture meets instinct.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 4.Oct.19 lff

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall