The Lighthouse Movie Review
The Lighthouse stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe and was directed by Robert Eggers in his sophomore directorial outing. It tells the story of two lighthouse keepers who are isolated on a remote island off the coast of Maine in the late 1800s. As time passes and a storm hits, they begin to lose their grip on reality and quickly descend into madness. The Lighthouse is one of those movies that’s beyond description. It doesn’t quite fit into any single genre or even normal genre combination. It has an atypical narrative style and it’s largely lacking in plot.
What little plot it does have is difficult to describe and there are seemingly dozens of ways to interpret the esoteric themes the film puts forward. It’s a mishmash of ideas, wrapped up in an aesthetically pleasing, seawater-soaked package that’s sure to be beloved by cinephiles, despite its borderline indecipherable nature. In other words, it’s a pretty typical A24 release. I’ve talked about it a lot in past reviews, but I have a very strange relationship with A24, especially with their horror fare. As intriguing as the trailers are and as much as I want to like the movies, I tend to be disappointed by them more often than not. So, when I first saw the trailer for The Lighthouse, I was overcome by that familiar sensation of intrigued confusion with a hopeful, yet realistic expectation of disappointment. And after seeing the film, I’ve gotta say, I honestly didn’t think I’d like it as much as I did. It’s not in the great A24 category for me, but it wasn’t an abject disappointment either.
There’s a lot to discuss when it comes to this movie, but I really want to talk about the technical aspects first, for a couple reasons. One, because they were very impressive, but two cause they’re among the only things about this movie that I feel like I understand and have a firm grasp of. The most obvious and perhaps most striking element of this is the film’s presentation. Not only is it black and white, but it’s also shot in a nearly square 1.19:1 aspect ratio. Both of these things are fairly rare in modern filmmaking, so they can come across a little gimmicky today, but it actually worked very well for the story being told.
Black and white photography immediately evokes a sense of age. It brings us back to a bygone era of filmmaking and really sets the temporal stage of a film, which is perfect for this late-1800s-set movie. Beyond the sense of age, black and white is all about contrast and lighting, two things used to great effect here. With a name like The Lighthouse, it should come as no surprise that light is gonna play an important part in the story. And it certainly does, both physically and metaphorically. The use of light, and especially shadow, when showing characters at various points during their island stay is surprisingly important and the stark contrast between the brightly-lit, brilliantly white day scenes and the dark, nearly black night scenes is both representative of the story and intentionally disorienting for the audience. The absence of color is unusual, but we can’t forget about that odd aspect ratio.
There seems to have been a bit of a revival of square-format aspect ratios over the last few years with movies like First Reformed, Cold War, and A Ghost Story, to name a few. But of the recent examples I can think of, I would argue that The Lighthouse makes the best use of the presentation style. By taking away the widescreen view we’re accustomed to, it not only accentuates the vertical axis (which is perfect when dealing with a 70 foot lighthouse), but it also emphasizes the claustrophobic and cramped nature of the story, always leaving us uneasy about what’s just off-screen. The other technical aspect that really struck me was the sound design. It truly feels like you’re there.
Whether it be the hollow, echoey thudding of boots on a wooden floor, the screeching seagulls being drowned out by crashing waves, the deafening foghorn, or the constant, maddening sound of dripping water ñ you feel like you’re isolated on the island with our two protagonists. Combine that with the loud and echoey dialogue, the moments of unsettling sound distortion, and the wonderfully ominous score and you’re in for a seriously impressive experience. So that covers the standout technical aspects of the film and leaves us with the performances and story itself. It’s a little unusual to come across a film that features only two actors, but that’s exactly what we have here.
The entirety of the film rests pretty equally on the shoulders of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Both give fantastic performances, though neither provides us with a particularly pleasant one. Everything is damp and dirty and confusing, so we end up being as uncomfortable as the characters are. Dafoe’s character is particularly unpleasant; between his frequently unintelligible dialogue, poor hygiene, open-mouth chewing, and those goddam fahts ñ you can just smell that place. And as the film progresses and things get increasingly manic and frenetic, these characters morph into unsettling and crazed variants of themselves, which is admittedly an acting feat. As far as the story goes, this is an incredibly weird movie.
It’s got such a simple premise, but things veer off onto so many odd and disconcerting paths that the film begins to take on an altogether different vibe. It holds the audience trapped in a state of uneasiness, constantly attempting to get us the drop our guard with moments of dark humor, while never fully letting the tension dissipate. It’s never a pulse-pounding, edge-of-your-seat movie, but the unsettling tension (especially between the two characters) constantly keeps you anxious about what’s gonna happen next. The Lighthouse is a movie that will undoubtably be a frustrating theatrical experience for many thanks to its esoteric nature.
The themes are not only left up to the audience to decipher, but huge chunks of the plot are open to many possible interpretations as well. What makes it all the more confusing is that just as you think you start to have a handle on what’s going on, the characters literally verbalize your exact thought which, rather than acting as confirmation, actually makes you second-guess the idea. Is any of this real? Part of it? Is it just a dream or the hallucination of a dying brain? Is there actually a supernatural basis or is it all just the unfortunate psychological consequences of cabin fever? Is it the story of one man’s descent into madness or of two men’s? Is it a tale of gaslighting or the curse of the seabird? You could make a well-founded case for any of those ideas and we’d still be no closer to deciphering the true meaning of this film. Alright let’s talk about the pros and cons. Pro number one has gotta be the technical aspects.
There’s no denying that this is a visually striking film. Not only is the black and white photography and aspect ratio unique, but they also contribute to the film’s intentions and make the movie feel genuinely of its time period setting. Beyond the presentation, this film features some solid cinematography which deftly makes use of the contrasting shadows and brightness. In addition to the visual aspects, the sound design and score both further contribute to the ominous, isolated, and cramped tone of the film.
The second pro is how open to interpretation this film is. I’ll be honest, usually this kinda thing would fall more to the con side for me. I don’t mind having to decipher and interpret a film’s meaning, but I tend to prefer when there’s a clear intention motivating the filmmaking and storytelling styles. Maybe it’s just the interesting range of possibilities here, but I actually like the open-ended interpretation. It can be viewed as supernatural or psychological and you could successfully argue either case. Even after thinking on the film for quite a while now, I haven’t come to a definitive conclusion regarding its explanation cause there’s isn’t one. On the con side, my biggest issue is something I can only classify as the weirdness.
This is something that’s very common in A24 films, albeit in different forms, but unfortunately typically falls onto the con side like this for me. I know weirdness is a broad thing, but I don’t know how else to classify the odd combination of contributing factors. Strange character moments and personality quirks, weird sometimes funny, sometimes unsettling dialogue, quick scene transitions, and very odd, almost random moments. Some of them work on their own, but as part of the whole, they just feelÖ well, weird. I’m gonna give The Lighthouse 3.5 out of 5 paws. It’s a weird, hard to describe movie, but it mostly worked for me.
Throw in the well-done technical aspects and you’ve got a movie greater than Robert Eggers’ directorial debut. I would recommend The Lighthouse to fans of A24 horror and horror-tinged films. It’s never outright scary, but it does have moments of uneasiness. If you know and like A24 films, then you know exactly what kind of weirdness you’re getting into here. Fans of esoteric psychological horror and thrillers may like this, but you should be aware just how weird it gets at points. If you liked The Lighthouse, I have to recommend The Shining for its thematic similarities, isolation-induced psychological trauma, and a limping axe scene. They’re a bit different when it comes to the story, but the tones fall surprisingly in-line with one another. Given one of the possible interpretations for this film, I’d also suggest you check out Gaslight.
It’s another good psychological thriller that focuses on manipulation and perceived insanity. Plus, since it was released in 1944, it’s black and white. And if you just want some more nautical craziness and rousing drunken renditions of sea shanties, you should check out Jaws. Alright, a couple questions for you guys. Number one: Have you seen The Lighthouse? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: What’s your favorite movie that features isolated characters? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.