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London Film Festival 2019: “The Lighthouse” Film Review

Let me get this out of the way: Don’t listen to the hype around “The Lighthouse.” It will not do you any good, as the film is never going to be anything you expect it to be.  “The Lighthouse,” which is wonderfully bizarre and weird, is bound to be divisive, and it will never be a film that can be classified as objectively good or bad. Much will depend on your willingness to be washed away with the two men guarding the titular lighthouse. It’s a wild ride; be careful not to get seasick.

The film kicks off when a young man (Robert Pattinson) and Captain Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe, having buckets of fun) arrive at a stormy, wet and miserable lighthouse. Their assignment is to watch over it and take care of it for a period of four weeks — no more, no less. Wake immediately insists he and only he is allowed to tend to the lighthouse, and the young man, who initially refuses to give his name, should be caring for the living quarters and any other jobs Wake can come up with.

Needless to say, tensions run high inside the tiny living quarters as the men squabble, bicker and eventually bond. The young man reveals himself to be one Ephraim Winslow, looking for a decent job with decent pay. He is fascinated by the lighthouse and keen to tend to it, but Wake refuses. Winslow begins to see strange things, and things take a turn for the worse when a storm strands the two on the island.

“The Lighthouse” is a film that is hard to describe. The film mainly runs on mood and the tension between the two fine actors. Pattinson and Dafoe have never been better, giving themselves completely to director Robert Eggers, who holds nothing back. Eggers is determined to put the two through the ringer, and at times the film feels less like a film and more like a test of how far can Eggers go, like a strange game of chicken. As with “The Witch,” Eggers once again uses authentic, time-appropriate language, which adds a level of theatricality to the film.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson | Photo credit : A24 Pictures

Thankfully, neither actor backs down, and “The Lighthouse” becomes an experience that either consumes you completely or possibly spits you out and leaves you utterly unsatisfied. Regardless of the outcome, it’s a rare joy to observe two such talented actors go face-to-face in a film like this. Eggers’ filmmaking shines bright; between the language, the aspect ratio and the tight framing, this is a filmmaker’s film through and through. Filmed in black and white, “The Lighthouse” is stylish, but the style never overtakes the substance, the backbone of the film. It’s a film where everything works in perfect harmony, from the sound to the image and the performances. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke frames Pattinson and Dafoe claustrophobically tight, relentlessly capturing their increasing paranoia and terror. “The Lighthouse” hasn’t been made to make tons of cash or to satisfy an audience, but to fulfill the artistic needs of Eggers and, most likely, Pattinson and Dafoe.

“The Lighthouse” feels like a challenge — for us and for everyone involved in the making of it. Do we dare to watch? Do we dare to keep watching? Can we admit we have no idea what is going on? It’s refreshing and at times exhausting; it’s not an easy film in any measure, not even a rewarding one necessarily, but never anything less than a fascinating one. It pulls you in like the tide, and spins you around until you’re disoriented and dizzy and completely at Eggers’ mercy.

Pattinson and Dafoe commit to their roles ferociously. Despite the challenging language, there isn’t one false line delivery in the film. It’s an aggressively masculine film, with two different types of masculinity clashing. Dafoe’s older, constantly farting captain Wake is in constant battle with the younger Winslow, who feels he’s being made into a glorified maid of the house. The dynamic between the two men is ever-shifting and changing, constantly in flux depending on their mood, time of day and their blood’s alcohol levels.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson | Photo credit : A24 Pictures

It’s impossible to say what “The Lighthouse” really is about. There are as many answers and explanations to its narrative as there are viewers. The question often is what is real and what is not and whether we can still appreciate and enjoy a film that refuses to settle for one explanation, one story. “The Lighthouse” is about everything and nothing at all, but it’s a fine piece of cinematic art, that’s for sure.

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