Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers
Producer: Rodrigo Teixeira, Jay Van Hoy, Robert Eggers, Lourenco Sant¡¯ Anna, Youree Henley
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman
Two lighthouse keepers confront madness and mystery when they become stir crazy and stranded on a remote New England island.
Critics have several options for how to frame a review. One of those ways is to focus on artistic critique by insightfully examining a movie¡¯s ideas, execution, and thematic complexities.
Another approach might be to serve as an informative consumer report rather than an academic essay. The writer could of course provide subjective reflections in addition to objective descriptions. But readers are left to judge whether or not they want to take a dip based on how personal views might align with a particular critic¡¯s opinion.
For ¡°The Lighthouse,¡± I¡¯ll have to lean toward the latter because I¡¯m incapable of the former. The good news is if beard-stroking breakdowns and overly intellectualized interpretations are what you¡¯d prefer, there¡¯s no shortage of eye-rolling takes out there from people anxious to appear cultured by claiming ¡°The Lighthouse¡± is ¡°a modern masterpiece¡± without offering irrefutable evidence. With a 91% ¡®Fresh¡¯ rating on Rotten Tomatoes and numerous perfect scores to its name, you¡¯d take a peer¡¯s punch in your glasses for not seeming smart if you dared chide the film for being indulgently ambiguous rather than champion it for the same reason.
¡°Boredom makes men to villains,¡± says Willem Dafoe¡¯s irritable lantern keeper to new assistant Robert Pattinson early on in the movie. It also makes men wish they had chosen to watch anything other than ¡°The Lighthouse.¡±
If you had asked me before the movie what life might have been like for two 19th-century lighthouse keepers stranded alone for weeks on a remote rock in New England waters, I would have immediately assumed ¡°depressingly dull and dreary.¡± So other than inspiring me to check my watch, I¡¯m not sure what director and co-writer Robert Eggers means to accomplish by excessively detailing Pattinson¡¯s daily duties of roof shingle repairs, decontaminating well water, collecting coal, and hauling kerosene drums up a spiral staircase. How much is too much when establishing mundane atmosphere?
20 minutes into the movie my overriding thought was, ¡°there are still 90 more minutes of this to go?¡± I don¡¯t believe anyone would suffer a setback by walking into the film half an hour late. You might actually appreciate the movie more since your eyelids wouldn¡¯t have had as much time to heavy.
¡°The Lighthouse¡± is brilliant in the sense that because it abstractly chronicles two men spiraling into stir-crazy madness, the film inherently immunizes itself against accusations of being incoherent and often indecipherable. Whenever an abrupt cut depicted a flash of fantasy or showed Robert Pattinson staring at something strange, I routinely wondered, is this a dream sequence? A waking hallucination? A mirage? Reality? Whose point of view is this even, Dafoe¡¯s or Pattinson¡¯s? Can the director offer a clue or a compass so I can navigate his distinct vision rather than having to make up my own meaning?
Due to dialect structure as well as each actor¡¯s mustached accent, it¡¯s hard to understand what the men are saying much of the time, even when you can make out the words. I¡¯ve seen other reviews mention this same issue while still praising the movie. That goes to show you how pointless a lot of the dialogue is. Even the film¡¯s supporters can¡¯t confirm what is said. Yet in their eagerness to automatically validate Eggers¡¯ auteur card for bucking convention by shooting a period piece as a theatrical chamber drama in full-frame black and white, they don¡¯t seem to care about something as critical as cohesion.
A few minutes before the typically cryptic finale, when action implied the film was cresting toward a conclusion, I wrote in my notes, ¡°I can¡¯t wait for this to happen so the movie can finally be over.¡± Since ¡°The Lighthouse¡± trades almost exclusively in stream of consciousness meandering, other random thoughts of mine include, ¡°why does the foghorn sound like ¡®The Purge¡¯ siren?¡± I also made my own amusement by regularly remembering the Kids in the Hall ¡°Sausages¡± sketch, which hilariously mocked the kind of expressionist pretension ¡°The Lighthouse¡± employs without irony.
Giving credit where it¡¯s unquestionably earned, make no mistake that Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are indeed magnificent. Both men disappear into personalities that are never less than authentic, exposed, and intensely engaging. Dafoe in particular delivers mesmerizing monologues that, although they may make little sense, are fascinating to watch purely to appreciate the craft of performance. Wait until you witness how Dafoe deliciously chews on words while also chewing on disgusting mouthfuls of dirt.
Dafoe and Pattinson are at least enjoyable to watch, even when we¡¯re tasked to watch them do things that are uninteresting, which is often. They¡¯re surrounded by a setting so cold it becomes soulless and plugged into plotting so unsubstantial it becomes uninviting. ¡°The Lighthouse¡± is the kind of experimental project infinitely more attractive to actors interested in advancing their art than it is to audiences who have to patiently wait while they ¡°explore the space.¡±
I usually throw up my hands in surrender for divisive arthouse efforts like this with a 50/100 that essentially says, ¡°pick whichever side of the fence you prefer.¡± I have to edge down the rating in this instance because I can¡¯t imagine recommending this slow slog to even the most open of minds. For a similar setup with more traditionally tangible Lovecraftian chills, check out ¡°Cold Skin¡± instead (review here).
I¡¯d challenge anyone who puts this film on a poetically pontificating pedestal to specifically cite examples of meaningful value without vaguely saying, ¡°it¡¯s weird¡± or ¡°I just liked it.¡± But maybe it¡¯s an unrealistic wish to ask a viewer to be more articulate about ¡°The Lighthouse¡± than its creators were.
Review Score: 45