There are three things to take into consideration when thinking about seeing this strange little film: the director and co-writer Robert Eggers, and the two stars, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
Robert Eggers: His only previous feature was the grim and gruesome and eerily atmospheric horror film “The Witch,” about a 17th century family’s descent into madness. “The Lighthouse” - hard to believe - is even more atmospheric. Doubling down on the mind-numbing qualities produced by the washed-out colors of “The Witch,” Eggers this time had the same cinematographer shoot in black and white, then reduced to shades of gray. His fans will like that, but they need to know that this is not a horror film.
Willem Dafoe: Why hasn’t this man won an Oscar yet? Or even a Golden Globe? He’s one of the greatest actors of this or any recent generation. He’s been a beacon in “To Live and Die in L.A.,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Shadow of the Vampire,” “Antichrist,” “John Wick” ... you get the picture. With “The Lighthouse,” Dafoe has been given license to go beyond anyplace he’s gone before. It’s his finest, most searing role to date.
Robert Pattinson: Isn’t it time to stop haranguing him for the opportunities of the “Twilight” films? Sure, they were mostly overwrought piffle, but they did make him a star, gained him a massive young female audience, and allowed him to progress into other, better roles. Check him out in “Cosmopolis,” “The Rover,” and “The Lost City of Z.” He’s a damn good actor, and he makes a perfect foil, with plenty of chops to spare, for Dafoe in “The Lighthouse.” But his performance is certainly not what those young female fans will be hoping for.
OK, I’ve avoided getting into what this film is about long enough, mainly because I’m not exactly sure. Suffice it to say, you haven’t seen anything like it before. It’s set in the 1890s, on a small island off the New England coast (but shot in Nova Scotia), where a lighthouse, always attended by a crew of two men, keeps sailors safe from the perils of the shoreline.
It’s here that old salt Thomas Wake (Dafoe) has spent who knows how many years, and where assistants regularly show up for brief stints to help him keep the place running. It’s where Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) is dropped off for a four-week shift that he eventually comes to realize will consist of doing the most toil-inducing work, under the command of Wake, and will have to put up with Wake’s strict orders and determinedly antisocial behavior.
Wake is a superstitious curmudgeon who would rather be alone, though he has moments of morose chattiness. Winslow is a lost soul who has come out there because he has no idea what else to do with his life. When, during one of their downbeat meals together, Wake asks Winslow why he doesn’t respond to his stories, Winslow quietly says, “I ain’t much for talking.”
It’s an awful place: cramped quarters, insufficient lighting, clanking machinery, life-threatening weather conditions. Winslow appears to be angry at the world. Wake either has some emotional baggage pent up inside or he’s half-mad.
Things do eventually lighten up between them, but there’s not much respite for Winslow, who is regularly taunted and tortured by a seagull, but is warned that to harm a sea bird is to bring bad luck. It’s not a spoiler to say that bad luck is on its way. As is a third character - who may or may not be real - in a couple of cameo scenes, as is a horrendous storm and a dip into full-tilt surrealism and uncountable instances of the two actors challenging and complementing each other. And with tensions building to a fever pitch, Eggers and his film offer up a final shot that you won’t forget, no matter how hard you try.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers; directed by Robert Eggers
With Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson