Robert Eggers grabbed a lot of well-deserved attention for his 2015 period horror film “The Witch”. It was his feature film debut and it instantly revealed his impressive knack for historical detail and slow-boiling tension. Like so many I was drawn to the dark tone and growing sense of unease. But he also exhibited a stunning visual craft that was essential to the film’s effectiveness. “The Witch” left many of us wondering what Eggers would do next.
His followup turns out to be just as unique and original. “The Lighthouse” is an interesting slice of psychological horror that aesthetically could have been plucked straight from the late 1930s. It’s a cerebral dive into paranoia and insanity with two lighthouse keepers serving as our avatars. The story is light but the characters and the performances that drive them are the highlight. Unfortunately they can only carry it so far.
Set in the late 19th century, the film opens with the first of many stunning shots – a sublime mix of sound and visual as a tugboat penetrates the fog on the rough and tumble New England seas. Onboard is a greenhorn named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who’s to be dropped off on a remote island for some contract work. He’ll spend the next four weeks working under an old surly seadog named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) who tends to the island’s lighthouse.
From the very first moments we see the same management of atmosphere and mood that made “The Witch” such a good film. This time Eggers shoots on gorgeously grainy 35mm and with a boxed-in 1.19:1 aspect ratio. This not only makes the film look as though it was made decades ago, but it keeps our focus tight and adds a suffocating claustrophobic sense throughout. And the cinematography and sound design work hand-in-hand to create and maintain a steady foreboding tone.
It also helps that Dafoe and Pattinson are such perfect fits for this dark, dank world. With their grizzled faces, wearied eyes, suspicious demeanors – both give stand-out performances and essentially carry the bulk of the film’s weight on their shoulders. But regardless of how great the film looks or how stellar the two lead performances are, the script (co-written by Eggers and his brother Max) is too bare and eventually the fits of drunkenness and madness, wacky hallucinations and endless yelling grows old.
Don’t misunderstand, I have no doubts Eggers intends there to be meaning behind most of what he gives us. He does some compelling things with his setting, personal demons resurface, even hints of mythology are scattered about. He clearly wants us to put together the psychological puzzle he’s laying out before us. But there needs to be a hook – something that grabs and engages me enough to want to think things through.
The story hints at making a shift after Winslow breaks a cardinal seaman’s rule which possibly triggers a huge storm which pummels the island. But in no time we’re back to scenes that feel like repeats of ones we’ve seen several times before. Gleaning new bits of information from the repetition becomes a frustrating chore. This lasts a while and it isn’t until the final ten minutes that we get what could be considered meaningful progression.
And perhaps most surprising to me is the lack of mystery and suspense. Sure, there are a few questions we wonder about: What is Wake hiding in the locked-up lantern room of the lighthouse? Is the island supernatural? What secrets from their past are these two men hiding? But there rarely seems to be a satisfying path to finding answers. And I found none of it particularly scary. Throwing in an occasional grisly image or weird scenes of pent-up sexual frustration doesn’t do the trick. So we’re left with occasional bursts of the ominous score or the haunting sounds from around the island. Both are great, but hardly enough to sustain any sense of horror.
“The Lighthouse” ends up being a disappointing exercise. I worked really hard to like this movie, overlooking my frustrations and pushing forward for something more than the beautiful B&W visuals and intensely committed performances. But I never found it, at least not enough of it to keep me connected. And it’s such a shame, because I usually really go for movies like this. Sadly, not this time.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS