Directed by Robert Eggers | Written by Robert and Max Eggers | 109 min | Amazon Prime
I saw this feature at the closing night screening of the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival, and despite the hubbub and festival enthusiasm, the presence of the filmmaker and one of his stars, Willem Dafoe, I didn’t much warm to it.
Now I’ve had a few weeks to let the memory of the film settle, I still stand by my first impression—which you can see below slightly updated—though I have to acknowledge the picture isn’t like anything else I’ve seen this year. That in itself makes it a curiosity, which is practically a recommendation at a time of sequels and safe industrial entertainments.
The Lighthouse is also big deal for the Nova Scotia film industry. It shot for 35 days in Burnside and Dartmouth and on location just near Yarmouth at Cape Forchu, A keeper’s building and full scale lighthouse were built and transported to the location, all to the specifications of writer-director Eggers, who comes from a background in Production Design before he made his 2016 goat-horror debut, The Witch.
This is a different animal altogether. We’re on a rocky island off the coast of Maine. It’s 1905, and the relief lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), a blustery, salty former sailor, and his apprentice, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), holding tight to a dark secret, arrive to take over the station for a month, with Wake the relentless taskmaster and Winslow just sort of hanging on. Winslow drinks, and starts to hallucinate about merfolk and other myths and horrors of the sea.
The look is locked in: black and white, shot on 35 mmm film with a high contrast grain and a boxy frame, keeping things gloomy and close for this two-hander, with the sound design a real achievement—the constant fog horn chiming in with spooky creaks and atmospheric groans.
Between the two men it’s all flatulence and masturbation—the latter becoming a theme for Pattinson—and that’s joined eventually by heavy drinking to manage the boredom of being stuck in this place once an interminable storm arrives. The leads’ performances go large, acting with a capital A, which is no doubt engaging—a lot of rousing speeches, if only partly intelligible, made more so by the bad teeth in Dafoe’s head.
But The Lighthouse doesn’t add up to a lot. It isn’t terribly frightening, and the sense of creepiness, which Eggers so deftly built through the running time of The Witch, peaks early here and never really takes us anywhere. The broad, theatrical, scenery chewing performances, along with unexpected lashes of humour help keep things lively, but those things also tend to undermine the suspense or much forward motion in the plot.
This is at once an impressively constructed, gothic experience at the movies, but also, sadly, a bit of a chore.
The Lighthouse opens in Halifax on October 25, 2019