The Lighthouse is an interesting cinematic experience. On one hand, it’s a dull and drawn-out story about two lighthouse keepers (known as wikies) who become trapped on a remote island after a storm hits. Running out of provisions, they resort to consuming large amounts of alcohol to pass the time and start to lose their minds. Not the psychological horror story I was expecting. But on the other hand, it’s a fantastic psychological experience with amazing cinematography, strong performances and a haunting soundscape that creates an uncomfortable tone that needs to be seen at the cinema to appreciate how well done it is. So if you’re looking for cinematic art, then you’ve come to the right place.
Directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch, Brothers) The Lighthouse is set on an isolated island in the late 19th century. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives at the island to serve a four week contract job as a wickie under the supervision of long term resident and wickie, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Looking forward to learning a new profession after leaving the logging industry in Canada, Winslow soon becomes disheartened when he realizes early on that Wake has no intention of ever letting him near the light itself. Instead, Wake tasks Winslow with physically taxing and less glamorous jobs of maintaining the lighthouse such as cleaning, shovelling coal and repairing the dwelling they live in.
As time goes by, Winslow starts to experience visions and strange dreams. He looks forward to his time being over as he dislikes the way he is treated by the old and cranky Wake who is full of stories and superstitions. But when a storm hits preventing the ferry from picking up Winslow, he’s forced to stay longer than intended with a man he is at odds with. With provisions running out, the two resort to drinking copious amounts of alcohol to pass the time. They soon form a drunken, chaotic relationship that spirals out of control.
With each passing day, Winslow struggles with his sanity and as the men continue to regularly drink themselves into a complete stupor, they learn more about each other than they bargained for. That last sentence actually makes this sound much more interesting and thoughtful than it really is. In truth, there is little more here than two sailors getting drunk and doing drunken things.
Robert Pattinson gives a strong performance as Winslow, the would-be wikie with a secret past. This is a very physical role requiring him to perform all manners of physical labor pertaining to the upkeep of a lighthouse – except maintaining the light itself. Despite the era the story is set in, Pattinson gives a very natural and relatable performance you’d expect from a young man having to politely listen to (and put up with) the baloney of a cranky old man who’s also your boss.
The one who really shines brightest (groan) in The Lighthouse however is Willem Dafoe as the old, farting, wikkie Thomas Wake. He delivers tongue-twisting lines of crazy sea-faring dialogue with such ease that it’s hard to believe we aren’t watching a man plucked from history and put in front of a camera. He’s so intense and delivers such a powerful performance that he overshadows Pattinson who, despite also giving his all, simply isn’t on the same level as Dafoe.
Robert Eggers has directed and co-written an interesting piece of cinema I found visually and auditorily engaging with its old-school cinematic style and tormenting sound – but it eventually bored the pants off me due to its weak story. If it wasn’t for the style of how this film was made I probably would have walked out. This Lighthouse seems to be more focused on a feeling of dread and the path to insanity than actually find an interesting psychological angle to build on. Don’t get me wrong, things happen, but not enough to warrant being a feature length film. Instead, we’re continually pulled into the downward spiralling psyche of Winslow while being made to suffer by watching him carry out repetitive and boring chores.
But once alcohol is introduced into the story, it just becomes scene after scene of drunken behaviour that honestly gets stale very quickly. Yes, there is the build up of tension because you know someone is going to finally snap at the end, but it’s not enough to be a worthwhile journey for the audience once the climax eventually happens.
The Lighthouse has a fantastically dark and off-tone vibe accomplished almost exclusively with amazing cinematography and a haunting soundscape. These reasons alone make it worth watching at the cinema. But it’s boring. Once you get past the initial 30 minutes of setup and intrigue it quickly devolves into little more than a visual and auditory showcase than a storytelling vehicle worthy of the great performances by Dafoe and Pattinson. Those who value aesthetics over narrative will likely appreciate the attention to detail on display here, but a movie needs more than just great visuals and presentation to be interesting.