Film Review: “The Lighthouse” Shines Brightly into a Narrative Void

Film poster: “The Lighthouse”

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019) 2 out of 4 stars.

Gorgeously photographed on Kodak’s high-contrast Double-X black-and-white 35mm film stock, and presented in an almost exactly square aspect ratio (1.19 to 1), The Lighthouse is not only beautiful to behold (in a nightmarish kind of way), but perfectly crafted to deliver its claustrophobic thrills. Director Robert Eggers’ follow-up feature to his 2015 debut, The Witch, it holds early promise to wow and amaze in profoundly cinematic ways, so gripping is its atmospheric opener, but then devolves, in its second half, into a sophomoric acting exercise between its two leads. They are Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) and Robert Pattinson (Good Time), who play two lost souls on an island of misery. Contrary to what one might expect in an underworld odyssey like this, the further they stray from the tried and true, the less interesting it is to watch. The loosening of narrative control over the story leads to chaos, and not of the creative kind. Still, it’s an interesting failure, and I was hooked until I suddenly wasn’t.

Dafoe plays established lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, and Pattinson his new partner, Ephraim Winslow. Dumped on a remote rock in the middle of the ocean to tend its aging beacon, they quickly establish that they have nothing in common, except for a tendency towards the idiosyncratic, albeit in different directions. Wake is gregarious and a nighttime drinker, while Winslow is tight-lipped and abstemious (at least at first). He’s also not accustomed to the sea, as this is his first gig since abandoning a lifetime of lumberjacking. Together, they man the station, though Winslow soon starts to see and experience strange hallucinations, especially after he kills a seagull (according to Wake, a big no-no for sailors). Is Winslow stark, raving mad, or are actual sirens out to capture and kill? As his mental state deteriorates, so does his already fractious relationship with Wake. They may not last the full term.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in THE LIGHTHOUSE ©A24

All the set-up fascinates, rich in visual tone and underscored by a brilliant sound design. Unfortunately, the script descends into a mess of scatological humor and chewable dialogue, what character development there is vanishing like the fog when it dissipates. And when there is actual fog, the resulting plot development is impenetrable. Dafoe has a lot of fun with his over-the-top New England-ish accent, words growled through his beard, while Pattinson mumbles his resentful way towards a homicidal breakdown. As a monument to filmic artistry in every way but the writing, The Lighthouse shines brightly. As a coherent fable of anything but structural disarray, it dims with each passing moment.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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