You might not be familiar with Robert Eggers name, but you should be. The filmmaker has worked as a screenwriter and production designer for years but in the last few years he has earned his keep as an up-and-coming horror director. In 2015 he debuted with the incredibly well-done period horror film “The Witch” and he returns four years later with another offering “The Lighthouse”. Co-written by Eggers and his brother Max Eggers, “The Lighthouse” is a psychological slow-burn horror feature with a small cast of only three performers including Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as a pair of lighthouse keepers on an isolated island whose mental states begin to deteriorate as they become suspicious of each other. Filmed in black and white in a limited aspect ratio “The Lighthouse” sports both a throwback aesthetic and a layered, thought provoking narrative. But is it good enough to be considered a horror masterpiece? Let’s find out in my review of “The Lighthouse”.
I was a big fan of Robert Eggers original film “The Witch” back in 2015 which, along with “It Follows”, was heavily responsible for me seeing horror as more than just a source of cheep thrills. With that in mind, going into “The Lighthouse” I had high expectations that Eggers would continue to provide great horror content and I was not disappointed. “The Lighthouse” not only contains the underlying symbolism and mystery that I expected from Eggers work, it also once again proves that horror is often at its best when it focuses on both human experience and theming rather than cheap genre clichés. “The Lighthouse” is a delightfully uncomfortable experience that delves into several different concepts including the terror of isolation, the dividing factors of generations, and the dangerous results of obsession. The Eggers brothers have written a delightfully unnerving psychological horror piece that brings you right in to the scenario and keeps you hooked around every mind-bending twist and turn.
Part of the “The Lighthouse’s” brilliance is the presentation. The film is shot with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio giving it an almost perfect square appearance (although the screenshots I used are rectangular for my formatting), echoing the claustrophobia of its characters’ experiences. The black and white aesthetic not only recalls horror classics of the past but also perfectly compliments the moral ambiguity of its two main characters who are never really black or white. They both feel like they fit into a gray area of flawed human beings who are neither redeemable nor truly evil in their intentions or motivations. The set designs, including a wooden lighthouse built specifically for the film, and the dependence on actual storms and weather events during filming give “The Lighthouse” some amazing and plot relevant atmosphere. The cinematography is also commendable giving it an artistic vibe without being pretentious or too showy. “The Lighthouse” is pretty much everything I love from a specialty horror film although be warned this is a serious slow burn not for the faint of heart or for anyone seeking more escapism horror.
Viewers going in seeking something a bit more entertaining than thought provoking will be disappointed. “The Lighthouse” is a brilliantly crafted modern interpretation of classic lore and fables adapted in a fashion that brings these timeless stories to life for a new audience. If you’ve read anything about “The Lighthouse” you’ve probably been informed of its similarities to the story of Prometheus, itself an allegory for the dangers of acting on obsession. Other Greek stories such as the legend of Poseidon and a Lovecraftian interpretation of the mythical mermaid are also incorporated into the story focusing on man’s respect, or lack thereof, of their place in existence and man’s sexual obsession respectively. Beyond the more fantastical elements, “The Lighthouse” also echoes the reported real-life tragedy from 1801 at the Smalls Lighthouse where two keepers were also caught up in a similar predicament, trapped in a lighthouse with their sanity on the line. Taking into account all of these different sources “The Lighthouses” is one of the most inspired films of the year in terms of its intricate and layered storytelling that provides a narrative that’s just coherent enough to follow but leaves enough to the imagination to keep you guessing and thinking well beyond the credits and considering what is real and what is all a tragic result of the characters’ state of mind.
This film would be nothing without the absolutely amazing performances by the two main players, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who are front and center the entire film. In fact, only one other performer, Valeriia Karaman, has a prominent role in the movie and that’s only seconds of screen time with no lines. A lot has been said about the main duos performances and they are more than worthy of praise. The accents used by each are carefully crafted for the film’s period setting (the 1800s) and their chemistry, or purposeful lack thereof, helps drive home the discomfort and the rocky relationship the two men endure on route to their mental instability. While Dafoe’s Thomas Wake is arguably the more fun character, Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow gets a bit more screen time and development and eventually becomes the main focus of the movie. Pattinson’s outstanding performance fully immerses us into his character’s frustration and deteriorating sanity. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of these men content for award season honors. It takes a lot to delve into characters like these and to have an entire film, especially one as complex at this, placed on your shoulders and both men pull it off with some of the most unforgettable performances of the year.
“The Lighthouse” is not an easy watch. It’s a complicated film to understand and to appreciate if you’re expecting a more traditional horror movie experience, but in terms of artistic merit its another fine example of how a horror movie can be so much more than just pure entertainment. With performances worthy of recognition, an inspired story that borrows from legendary sources to delve deep into the human psyche, and a setting and filming style that perfectly complements the chaos and claustrophobia of the atmosphere “The Lighthouse” is as well crafted as a modern arthouse horror experience can hope to be. Having gone in expecting big things from Eggers after his impressive debut with “The Witch”, “The Lighthouse” leaves me only wanting more from this up-and-coming genre specialist. It’s a perfect balance of intense psychological horror and symbolic storytelling that continues the trend of more sophisticated and thought provoking horror masterpieces that has made the 2010s such a great decade for the genre.