Review: The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse (2019)
Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson.  Written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers.  Directed by Robert Eggers.

For a psychological horror film, The Lighthouse is quite watchable if you (like I) shy away from such pictures.  It’s unlikely to give you nightmares or to gross you out, so it’s worth a shot, because this is one compelling and gorgeous movie.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, lighthouse attendants on a remote island in the north Atlantic.  Wake is the barnacled veteran with a pirate’s aaaaarrrrgot, a grouchy taskmaster to first-timer Winslow. Their relationship begins tenuously and continues contentiously, the men’s interactions swinging from testy to amiable depending on how much alcohol has been consumed.

Wake and Winslow are stationed for four weeks, but a vicious storm extends their stay.  The men’s quarters are cramped, and they spend just about every minute together. This reality is heightened for the viewer by the film’s 1.19 to 1 aspect ratio, a frame that’s practically square, much narrower than a high-def television screen, even narrower than pre-HDTV television screens.

The acting is fabulous, but excellent performances by the principal actors highlight one of The Lighthouse’s major obstacles.  When great actors overact in service to the movie, we have to work out a certain tension.  When skilled writing goes over the top, we have to decide whether or not to accept it. At the height of one conflict, one character accuses the other of being a parody, so Pattinson, Dafoe, and director Robert Eggers are clearly aware of these issues.

Eggers’s commentary track reveals meticulous research and thoughtful filmmaking, so I’m inclined to accept the film on its terms.  Accepting the acting and writing makes it easier to accept the other strange sights and developments; my advice is to appreciate everyone’s considerable chops.  There’s almost no way the film satisfies if you can’t.

The Lighthouse is compelling and gorgeous.  Block off two evenings because it rewards a second viewing.


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