REVIEW: “The Lighthouse”


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.



34 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Lighthouse”

  1. Your assessment is honest but very generous in my view. The actors are the one piece of the puzzle I can get behind. I hope you saw this in a theater because otherwise you won’t be able to see much of it, it is so murky. I disliked The Witch and with this film the director has clearly indicated to me that I am not his audience.

    • I did see it in the theater and thought it looked incredible. Really loved the visuals and sound design. I also thought the performances (as you mentioned) were fantastic. All of those things and the early few scenes make up the whole of my 2.5 score. After that I have a hard time finding much to be excited about.

  2. I had to skip this, you lucky son of a’s get this movie now, we don’t till next year.

    A screener of this better hit the net before then or I’ll be pissed off. ANd they wonder why Australians pirate so many movies. =/ Bah!!!

    I’m reading a lot of middling reviews, tho middliong reviews often make for my favourite movies. I’m guessing it is no The VVitch but I loved that so much I wish I could watch this now =[

    And I bet Antlers doesn’t come here either, Hostiles didn’t. Again, if the movie is on the internet in HD, and its not even at the cinemas down here… I really don’t see what is so evil about downloading a copy. I’m obviously gonna go see these delayed movies eventually, but just like Midsommar, it was online before it was on the screens here.

    And given so many films are Netflix ones, who have already bought the movies/TV shows they have in their library, and of course the Aussie library being absurdly castrated, if I pirate their films I am, what, ‘hurting’ a giant, multinational corporation? Yknow I find it hard to feel bad about that, I really do.

    Anyways sorry for that pointless rant. I need to write a piece on bit-torrent just to vent all my frustration. Plus I wanna see Antlers really bad!!!!

    • I’m with you, The Witch was superb. That’s a big reason I was so excited for this one. Sadly it doesn’t measure up. The mood and atmosphere is fantastic and the performances really stand out. But the story is so lightweight and so many scenes repeat themselves over-and-over. So frustrating.

  3. Although this one was filmed in my neck of the woods, Nova Scotia, I didn’t have it on my radar at all. I watched the Witch and never got the praise for it. I found it a slog to get through and thought that the father was a complete idiot. So knowing who was involved, I was nope and after reading your review, Im glad I skipped the special showing they had in Halifax a while back . I usually like weird and quirky movies but this director just doesn’t connect with me at all.

    • I had really high hopes for it. It’s frustrating because the things it gets right are really impressive. The sound and visuals are stunning. And the two main performances are sublime. But it’s so paper-thin and I fought hard trying to find something to latch onto. Ultimately the high points are enough to carry it. Toss in some pointless weird/crass shock value moments – still not enough.

  4. While I did enjoy the film, I will admit that the pacing at times did meander and I kind of wanted to doze off a bit but I was engrossed by its visuals and presentation. Plus, kudos to Robert Pattinson for making some daring choices as an actor as he will no longer be known as the mopey vampire from those Twilight films.

    • I’ll be anxious to read your response to both. I’ll just say they both hit me in entirely different ways. I’ll be posting a “Jojo” review either tomorrow or Thursday.

  5. All you lucky bastardos!!! Next year I’ll be seeing this, a month and a half from now, I honestly hope a screener of this hits the net, I’ll still wanna see it on a big screen naturally, but god, and thjy wonder whjy Australia has the largest amount of piracy per head than anywhere else! This is why!!

    Ahem. Sorry, I know I go on and on about that subject. It really is time to write a post about it.

    This looks like I’ll actually like it. Middling reviews often result in my favourite films. I’ll keep my expectations down though, though by next year I’ll probably have forgotten about it!

    • I completely understand. I went in with the same feelings. But I left pretty frustrated. What it does well is really good. But it’s just so paper-thin. Definitely rent it though. I would like to read your take on it.

  6. This is how I felt too. The technical marvels can’t distract from how bare bones the script is, and how boring this film gets.

    • Bare bones indeed. And as I mentioned, I couldn’t find anything to latch onto – nothing to make me want to think harder about what the movie might be saying.

  7. Uffff. Seems like ‘professional critics’ might have gotten swept away with all the fancy, artsy stuff again. The reviews of the people who don’t get paid, which I found believable, do mention the lack of story and for me the story is always the most important

    • Story is huge and this one is so paper-thin. It sucks because I really love the old-school aesthetic and the performances. But like you said, story is important and a movie like this needs to give you something to latch onto.

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  9. I watched this 2 nights ago and sought out your review. I can’t disagree with any of it. There were things about this movie that set me on edge bigtime. One was when they dug up the case of booze. Dafoe’s character was a moron for forcing Pattinson’s character to drink. Anybody with a shred of sense could see there was a reason he was choosing not to drink. Another was when they started drinking kerosene! (guessing whatever was in the can was kerosene). What idiot in their right mind would guzzle kerosene?? The third that put me over the edge was how they trashed the place. I think the mystery that was supposed to propel the plot was wondering which one of them had lost their minds, but the reality is the old captain had probably gone mad a long time ago due to long-term isolation and the greenhorn was an anti-social addictive powerkeg with a persecution complex. The ending was haunting to me. Not sure what my rating is going to be next week.

    • It’s a movie I have steadily been wrestling with since I first saw it. It left me disappointed but there are things I really like about it. I’m thinking a revisit is in order down the road.

  10. You really have to watch this movie twice (preferably with subtitles to understand the characters’ dialects better) in order to fully grasp it. There is a LOT more to it than “two men go crazy in a lighthouse and start seeing weird stuff”.

    • Yep, I’m with you. I definitely believe Eggers is going for a lot more than a surface reading would have you believe. It just got a little monotonous to me. And the wackiness of the last act didn’t resonate with me as I wish it had. I will give it another look someday.

  11. Pingback: Movie Review: “The Lighthouse” – Boards of Cinema

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