The Lighthouse (2019)

Directed by Robert Eggers

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In The Lighthouse two men are trapped on a desolate, stormy island for much longer than they signed up for.  They are so isolated, in fact, that the film quickly leaps beyond any suggestion of realism and describes instead some version of hell or purgatory.

The lighthouse keeper is Tom (Willem Dafoe), and his tireless, aspiring assistant is Winslow (Robert Pattinson).  They are strangers to each other, here only for the work, though soon they will become all too acquainted with each other.

It’s a beautiful but grimy film, shot at compelling angles and filled with a constant barrage of noise, from the ominous foghorn to the waves and even Tom’s passing gas.  That plus the squared off aspect ratio, and everything about this film is claustrophobic, selling the idea that they are indeed stuck, long before they realize it.

The whole thing feels like some arthouse film geek’s fantasy (read: me).  Though there is a story and some degree of comedy and drama, the most appealing thing here is just the technique and style with which it’s all put together.  It’s just a bunch of people working at the top of their game, giving full commitment to something that, when read on the page, might not immediately demand your full commitment.

This whole thing feels like a long metaphor.  It’s not a comedy, it’s only occasionally dramatic, and it’s not even much of a horror film, though it is very much an experience.  Like what I consider to be some of the best films it cuts straight to the bones, something that will linger inside of you even as you scratch your head walking out of the theater.

It’s madness, isolation, awe and wonder, and maybe even a story about friendship, granted that friendship is based entirely on alcohol and their shared misery.  It’s pretty much The Shining if Jack Torrance had a writer’s assistant to get mad at.

What’s perhaps most noteworthy in all of this is just how much the effort of the actors (and the people behind the camera) shows up onscreen.  In one scene Willem Dafoe recites a monologue while dirt is piled on top of him, spilling into his mouth.  Just that scene alone, regardless of context, is hard to watch because you can just imagine what it was like after director Robert Eggers yelled “cut” and a host of production assistants hurried to stand and clean him up.

In other moments the actors, and presumably the camera crew too, are absolutely soaked, standing in the middle of a howling rainstorm on rock so slick it seems like they could fall right off at any moment.

The whole enterprise just feels quite dangerous, and all for such an intimate film.  But that’s a good thing, it definitely works because that’s all on the screen.  This is after all a film about one or more people going bad, with the film itself losing its grip on reality.  It should be unhinged and chaotic, and it is.

The Lighthouse is so strange that I think it might put off viewers who see it in its opening weeks but then have a long shelf life for those who stumble across it down the line.  It’s like a cult classic record that you find hidden away in your older brother’s closet, a piece of art that rewards the effort that goes into finding it.

Up Next: The Laundromat (2019), Long Shot (2019), The Front Runner (2018)

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