Movie Review: ‘The Lighthouse’

Director: Robert Eggers

Cast: Willen Dafoe, Robert Pattison

Plot: A pair of lighthouse keepers are stationed on a remote island for a month towards the end of the 19th century. Amid a storm raging around them, hostile attitudes and alcohol abuse we see madness grip the island.

Review: If you’re wondering why I said the ‘island’ instead of identifying a character who loses their mind is because this movie is ambiguous as all get out. Perhaps you have formed a clearer picture of the events of The Lighthouse than I have, but the impression I have is that most people writing reviews don’t have a clear sense of the story.

What contributes most heavily to this sense of confusion is how unreliable the young man (Pattison) is as a narrator. We see events through his perspective and its undeniably clear that he has list his mind. He’s paranoid, potentially driven by dark secrets and has visions of mermaid vaginas. It’s possible that the old man (Dafoe) is also insane, possibly insane from the start, maybe a killer and potentially sexually involved with a lighthouse. Because we’re following the young man’s journey, it’s nigh impossible to determine what is real and what isn’t.

Here’s an example of what we’re talking about. We see the young man working his butt off scrubbing the machinery, hauling coal and oil, repairing their house…all while the old man takes the cushier job of manning the lamp at night. At points the old man accuses the young man of ignoring his duties and lying about his efforts. We’ve seen him working, but the old man is weirdly angry about this and points out the unfinished work. There’s no point in the story that confirms this one way or the other, and the sharp shifts in the old man’s demeanour doesn’t help with the disconnect.

At this point you may have determined that this is a strange viewing experience. This is because it is. It’s a dark movie with some disturbing visuals dotted throughout, some being so bizarrely sexual that a couple of audience members walked out during our critic’s screening. It’s not for everyone.

If it is for you, you’ll find that this is one of the best made films to hit cinemas lately. Eggers transitioned from production design to directing with The Witch, and The Lighthouse is no sophomore slump. The attention to period detail and the composition of images is impressive throughout. Inspiration is drawn from the films of the German Expressionism era, Greek mythology and from several notable works of art (not to say that a nude Willem Dafoe shining light out of his eyes is striking enough without knowing where the image came from). For much of the first half there’s little dialogue back and forth, with the high contrast visuals telling most of the story.

Both of the key performers are on par with the film-making standard that Eggers has set. This movie is so strange that it needs convincing performances to help ground us in this twisted reality, and both Dafoe and Pattison are brilliant. The elephant in the room is that Pattison is still heavily associated with his star-making role in the Twilight movies, and if that’s your only reference point for the increasingly interesting performer than you will need to start watching something other than Twilight. It’s not his fault you don’t want to leave your comfort zone.

Much of what we’ve talked about is the quality of the film-making. What that doesn’t tell us is how enjoyable the movie is. There’s a degree of enjoyment to be had from the skill of the film-makers, but can I relax and enjoy the experience of the story? There’s little satisfaction to be had from the narrative, as we never find out what really happened, and it’s difficult to engage with the characters that are unpleasant to be spending time with. If you prefer your cinema to challenge you, leave you with discussion points and generally make you uncomfortable with tentacles, then this is enjoyable.

Rating: NINE out of TEN