You know how a recurring job interview question is “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” I’m sure if you had asked Robert Pattinson that question in 2009 when he was doing the press rounds to promote The Twilight Saga: New Moon, he would have listed a hundred different answers before thinking “I’ll be in a black-and-white horror film with Willem Dafoe set entirely at a lighthouse.” It may not be what Pattinson would first think of as his future career prospects circa. 2009, but The Lighthouse, like much of Pattinson’s post-Twilight work, is both audacious and exceptionally well-made. Put simply, this new film from The VVitch helmer Robert Eggers is like if Phantom Thread, Swiss Army Man and Fritz Lang all had a super warped child.
The premise for this unorthodox motion picture concerns a crusty o’l sea captain named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and former timberman Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) being tasked to take care of an isolated lighthouse for four weeks. Their disparate personalities immediately clash, as Wake tends to far more chatty and bossy than the more reserved Winslow. As the days of their stint in this lighthouse go by, more and more unusual occurrences transpire at this lighthouse. Are they going mad? Is there something actually cursed going on at this lighthouse? Is Thomas Wake actually something of a scientist himself? One thing’s for certain; madness awaits the characters in The Lighthouse and viewers who partake in the movie.
The Lighthouse is the perfect merging of the artsy and fartsy. Shot on 35mm film in black-and-white in a 1.19: 1 aspect ratio, The Lighthouse carries the visual appearance of an early 20th-century thriller like M. As someone whose a sucker for films shot in unorthodox aspect ratios, The Lighthouse was a visual feast. Its careful cinematography (done by Jarin Blaschke) is always considerate of the amount of space in a given frame and shows an immense level of consideration in terms of camerawork and blocking. A nice touch related to the aspect ratio is how certain nighttime scenes are so dimly lit that the borders of the frame seem to vanish, leaving a seemingly endless void of darkness to consume the screen.
This recurring visual touch subtly creates an image that instills the idea that these two characters are dwarfed by forces far beyond their control. The frames of the border are as tenuous as their sanity. In addition to homaging classic thriller cinema and fiddling around with aspect ratios to create an ominous mood, The Lighthouse is also frequently a wacky dark comedy with enough fart jokes to fill up an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head. Comparisons from the internet between The Lighthouse’s trailer and episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants turn out to be accurate to the movie itself. The delightfully unpredictable comedic energy of SpongeBob episodes that abruptly end with a guy in a gorilla suit riding off into the sunset is certainly found in abundance in sequences in The Lighthouse depicting just how off the deep end its lead characters have gone.
In an impressive feat, Robert Eggers doesn’t sacrifice tension or the chilling atmosphere in pursuing this comedy. On the contrary, the dark comedy tends to actually do a sufficient job of helping to inform the horror in The Lighthouse. The unpredictable behavior of the only two characters in The Lighthouse can frequently be hysterical (Thomas Wake finally showing vulnerability once his cooking gets insulted, for instance) but it can also be utterly chilling. You’re never sure if these characters are gonna make you laugh or put a chill up your spine, sometimes they manage to do both of those things in the space of a single scene! Chalk up The Lighthouse as another winner for horror/comedy, a genre that’s been having a great year in 2019.
Eggers’ script doesn’t just work well with blending horror and comedy though. Like with Robert Eggers previous directorial effort The VVitch or Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, The Lighthouse carries a strong affinity for period-era appropriate dialogue that’s delightful to the ears and helps to further reinforce the movies own distinct identity. Just as The Lighthouse fully commits to its own intricately executed cinematography and a unique tone of madness, so too does it also dive head-first into having a unique style of dialogue that’s especially discernable with the character of Thomas Wake. This fellow doesn’t just look like a crusty o’l sea captain, he also talks like one to a tee and it’s a style of speaking that Willem Dafoe has a blast portraying.
The consistently impressive Dafoe shines as Thomas Wake, it’s stunning just how fully he transforms into an obsessive sea captain who makes Captain Ahab look like a landlubber. It’s especially impressive how much intimidating power he communicates in extended single-takes where he bellows extended monologues at Pattinson’s character, in these moments you feel like Dafoe’s performance could shake mountains and turn the tide of the ocean itself. Pattinson makes for a great counter to Dafoe, the way he depicts his character steadily getting more and more off-balance as The Lighthouse progresses is thrilling to watch and he sinks his teeth and then some into his role’s most scenery-chewing moments. Weirdness abounds in these lead performances because why wouldn’t it in a movie as committed to the unusual as The Lighthouse? In the hands of these fully committed actors and filmmakers, unhinged madness has rarely been as simultaneously haunting and humorous as it is in The Lighthouse.