Robert Eggers’s “The Lighthouse” is his second film, following “The Witch.” courtesy A24

“The Lighthouse” demonstrates impeccable storytelling

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe perform with undeniable grace in this intimate and confounding film.

As this decade draws to a close, moviegoers are inevitably going to start asking what the greatest films of the 2010’s are. People’s tastes are very subjective, and there is never going to be a “right answer” to this question of film greatness. But there are definitely a few movies from this decade that stood out as special, and Robert Eggers’ new film, “The Lighthouse” is, in my personal opinion, definitely one of them.

One undeniable facet of this decade has been the dominance of superhero movies on the medium. We have had 13 straight years of blockbuster films coming out of large, titanic, shared cinematic universes at Marvel, with countless iconic comic book characters getting the silver screen treatment.

Recently, however, this trend had started to become stale, with superheroes being a very familiar genre. Famed Director Martin Scorcesse recently called out superhero movies for lacking artistic integrity, prompting backlash from other filmmakers. It seemed like an odd time to deride superhero movies, with a complex and nuanced, grounded superhero story in the form of “Joker,” being released to critical and financial acclaim around the same time as Scorcesse’s comment. “Joker” showed audiences that superhero films could flourish by keeping things grounded.

As for arthouse films, they need to punch up – to make bold choices, and tackle tough, sweeping themes, oftentimes with limited budgets. And that is exactly what “The Lighthouse” does.

The film stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as lighthouse keepers, or “Wickies,” in the 1890’s, who become stranded on a remote island during their duties due to inclement weather. As the storm worsens, the two men begin to lose their grip on reality, and mysterious things begin to unfold. Cabin fever, distrust and paranoia soon set in, as possible supernatural occurrences assail the two morally questionable protagonists.

Pattinson and Dafoe are alone on this island; there are no other actors in the film, save for two tertiary extras that have little under a minute’s screen time in flashbacks. Other than that, the film is complete and total isolation – meaning that both these actors have to carry the film entirely by themselves.

Fortunately for audiences, both these actors bring their absolute A-game in performances that are the best in their respective careers.

Pattinson is best known for his role as the male lead in the “Twilight” movies, but his career has undergone a complete and total transformation since then. His character, Ephrahim Winslow, is the younger, more relatable character of the two – with the movie mostly being framed from his perspective – but he comes to the island with a checkered past, and an uncertain future.

Pattinson, who is no stranger to big budget movies, has cemented his reputation as a serious and talented actor with several critically acclaimed roles in indie films, and between this movie and his recent casting in the next Batman movie, his career seems to have broken a glass ceiling.

Dafoe, on the other hand, is not unestablished. He is a true veteran of the Hollywood industry, having been acting in movies since 1980. He is best known for his roles in “Platoon,” “American Psycho,” “Spiderman” and “The Boondock Saints.” However, “The Lighthouse” may be his most impressive acting performance in a 40-year career.
His character, the elderly sailor Thomas Wick, fluctuates between charming and disturbing, all without these shifts feeling disjointed or unnatural.

It seems certain that Dafoe will be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and he has a great chance to win. His performance was astounding in this movie, and featured one of the most ferocious monologues in recent movie memory.

Both these actors have excellent onscreen chemistry, and they seem to be aware of each other’s acting rhythms, oftentimes crashing against each other like ocean waves. There is conflict, but they also compliment each other well.

The film is a horror movie, but don’t let this fool you. There is more to this movie than meets the eye. It is at times very funny – there were several moments during the film when the entire theater burst out laughing. This element of comedy helps ground the characters in the extreme conditions in which they’re placed. It also helps raise the pressure.

This is one of the most unnerving movies in recent memory. It relentlessly bashes you with tense pacing, and keeps you guessing. The movie has the right balance between being easy to follow and complex.

The director, Robert Eggers, has made one previous movie, “The Witch,” in 2015. He specializes in period pieces, and this movie feels like traveling back a century ago (both actors nail their Northeastern American accents, and sound like characters straight out of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”).

The entire movie is shot in black-and-white, and presented in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which makes the film look intimate, claustrophobic and well crafted at every turn. To enhance this, they even shot the movie with 35mm film, making it feel at times like a movie from the 1940’s.

Eggers has especially strong direction, and his film carries a variety of complex themes. The biggest is the tension created by the 31-year age gap between the two leading characters. This age gap increases the friction and distrust between the two in a natural way.

The film also contains themes and allusions to classical mythology and literature, giving the film a large, grandiose stature. All of this makes for a big budget experience from an arthouse film.

“The Lighthouse” managed to do exactly what it set out to do – tell a tense, constrained story of two men trapped together on a rock with a lighthouse. To make something so simple so well isn’t easy, and yet this movie has all the intensity of a three hour long superhero movie with millions of dollars’ worth of CGI. With “The Lighthouse,” the budgetary limits don’t show up on the screen. It is a master work of storytelling, and I highly recommend it to all but the faint of heart.

Post Author: A.C. Boyle