In an otherwise disappointing October for horror, Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse absolutely captivates. Robert and co-writer/brother Max Eggers manage to pack in horror trope upon horror trope, making for a flurry of satisfying panic-punches that lead to a haymaker of a finished product. Within The Lighthouse’s hour-and-fifty-minute runtime, leads Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe wrestle with wind-swept exposure, rum-fueled cabin fever, desperate sexual deviances, and a chillingly vicarious series of gaslighting.
Pattinson stars as Ephraim Winslow, a 19th century Canadian logger turned reluctant lighthouse assistant. Winslow’s first assignment is on a remote island off the coast of New England, under the tutelage of grizzled full-time “wicky” Thomas Wake, played by Dafoe.
Given the men’s isolation, cracks begin to appear from the start: we see Winslow balk at the incessant grating of the foghorn, looking ruefully toward Wake’s cushy position manning the beacon. From these starting scenes, the men’s relationship bobs up and down in a Titanic interplay of distrust and co-dependence. What follows is a series of firecrackers set to short punk: gaslighting, alcohol abuse, and horror imagery that blurs reality. The drowned men, cackling mermaids, and severed albatrosses only form the tip of this nautical-madhouse of an iceberg.
Eggers uses his near two hour runtime to full advantage, refusing to dawdle on a single beat. If the screen pans to the sea, it is to remind us of the isolating brutality of Winslow’s and Wake’s position. If the screen captures a gull, it acts as a key narrative device. The Lighthouse’s tight writing keeps it from falling into the Midsommar trap, in which Ari Aster’s two-hour-and-eighteen-minute “slow burn” burned itself out, wasting viewer’s time with visual self-indulgence: the screenwriter tripping over the cinematographer’s feet.
In a film that is completely dependent upon character arcs—a series of barely visible emotional evolutions—Pattinson and Dafoe paint a subtle picture. They play the precarious position of two men thrust so intimately together as to both hate and need each other. This split-relationship is always in the forefront of their performance; there are punches thrown with love, and there is cuddling neck-deep in antagonism.
In one scene, Wake curses Winslow for an imagined slight. The movie, shot on a square-like aspect ratio of 1:19:1, fills with the black-and-white fury of Dafoe’s haggard face. He spits a nearly unending seaman’s curse, punctuated only by his eschewed eyebrows. In house, the scene left the audience pin-drop silent. Its legacy could be felt throughout the rest of the runtime; perhaps Dafoe’s monologue was too emotive to allow for full recovery, even with Pattinson’s humorous response.
Despite the knockout pacing and performances, the conclusion is not satisfying. Eggers asks his audience to swallow a few plot devices that significantly pivot the movie’s position within reality. To allow this pivot to dribble, Eggers needed to conclude with a few answers littering the court. No such answers are given, and the ending scene leaves audiences emitting the kind of foghorn-esque groan that can only come from the writers’ room leaning too hard against the tired tropes of Greek mythology.
Although muddied by the eye roll of its conclusion, The Lighthouse presents some of the best arguments as to why contemporary horror can still produce classics. Whether you get your scares from interpersonal manipulation, kraken-like physiognomies, or Pattinson putting his shirt back on, The Lighthouse shines darkness bright, bright, bright.