At the end of the world, it’s easy to lose your patience with those around, and even it’s even easier to lose your grip on reality. Perhaps no director knows this better than Robert Eggers, whose last film The Witch, drew widely divided critical responses. While some regard it as a masterpiece, others found the events too slow. Ultimately, the horror story of witches in the woods, set in Colonial America, took a back seat to the family drama unfolding in front of our eyes. The emotional foundation and dark turns of The Witch instantly made Eggers someone with great promise, and The Lighthouse looks to take another step on that journey for the director. It’s not only the best horror film of the year, but it should earn one of its stars Willem Dafoe his Oscar.
The Lighthouse follows two men, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), as they go to tend a lighthouse in New England. Wake has been a wickie, the man who tends the actual light of the lighthouse, for years. For Winslow, this is his first contract. Wake tends the light himself, while he has Winslow handle the day-to-day tasks of cleaning, manual labor, and maintenance. However, when a storm comes to the island, the two are stranded beyond their contract. Things begin to turn as they run out of food and begin their descent into madness.
Eggers co-wrote the screenplay with his brother, Max Eggers, and the two immediately dive into the nuance of the era. The authentic dialogue and sailor ditties help set the mood for the roller coaster of a film. The Lighthouse is shot in black and white, adding a 1.19:1 aspect ratio to immediately put the audience in a state of unease. The nearly square frame, much smaller than a normal film’s 1.85:1, creates a sense of unease within the viewer and will disorient many. This will not be the first time the film visually plays with its audience and the cinematography from Jarin Blaschke delivers one of the most impressively shot films of the decade.
What separates The Lighthouse from many films that want to punish their audiences, the Eggers brilliantly dissolve tension through the most primal methods. Containing the most farts in a movie since The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Eggers uses flatulence as a mental game within the film. Dafoe’s character holds unwieldy power over the new wickie, and the ways in which he chooses to express that power can be odd. Yet these textures, combined with the seemingly never-ending horns of the lighthouse, become the fabric that brings this rock in the middle of the sea to life. Even the spray of the ocean feels visceral, and further adds to the loneliness of the setting.
You have to wonder what it was like on set between Pattinson and Dafoe, because each dives into their roles with a hunger to pull the intensity out of every word. They thrive off each other, and the two-hander brilliantly allows them to raise the stakes in their own time. If you’ve ever spent time with a group of friends in a car for twenty-plus hours, you know that the experience is like a ticking timebomb before someone blows their lid. The two actors have such chemistry and passion, you wonder if they were born to play these roles.
For Dafoe, he was undeniably born for this role. Hot off his second-consecutive Oscar nomination, Dafoe delivers his best performance of the three. He tears into the dialogue like a starved animal, playing up the strange and absurd demeanor that has made him a star. Complete with a sailor’s accent and absurd beard, he embodies the character with strange and often upsetting methods. His voice can be so chilling, you would think it’s out of a scary storybook. Yet his intensity and gruff also make this one of the landmark performances in his career.
Meanwhile, Pattinson steps up to match Dafoe’s intensity with a wild-eyed turn of his own. Once again, Pattinson delivers one of the most nuanced turns of his career. Yet the regularity with which he does so has begun to showcase his true talent. Without Pattinson’s buy-in to the material, the film doesn’t work. He not only creates empathy for a man beaten down by the sea, Dafoe, and Seagulls, but he also creates feelings of hate and anger. Even more impressive, he communicates the absurdity of what he believes he’s seeing at every turn. How anyone can watch this film and not come away impressed is beyond me, and while the focus seems to have landed on Dafoe, it would be hard to argue that Pattinson does not equally deserve recognition.
As the film continues, the story gets downright insane. To call The Lighthouse bonkers would be an understatement, and Eggers thrives on the disorientation of what is real. He does everything he can to throw off his audience, and at some moments, even alienate them from his film. Yet the events unfolding are so intriguing, he creates a hypnotic tension. That lies at the heart of The Lighthouse‘s power and makes it one of the very best films of the year. A meticulously crafted feature that uses every aspect of film to tell its story, The Lighthouse stands as a triumph in 2019.
What did you think of The Lighthouse? What do you think of Robert Eggers as a director? What do you think of Dafoe’s performance? Let us know in the comments below!
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