The Lighthouse (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Stuck in isolation and madness

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Robert Eggers’ second feature film “The Lighthouse” is a strange and disturbing film which will alternatively unnerve and baffle you from the beginning to the end. Although you may not be entirely sure about what the hell is going on between its two main characters stuck in an isolated background, the movie steadily holds our attention via its striking mood and authentic period details to be appreciated, and it eventually leaves quite a distinctive impression as also reminding us of other similarly unnerving horror films such as “Repulsion” (1965), “Eraserhead” (1977), and “The Shining” (1980).

The main background of the movie is some remote lighthouse island located somewhere around the New England area during the late 19th century, and Eggers, who wrote the screenplay along with his brother Max Eggers, promptly thrusts us into the first day of the two main characters on the island. While the younger one, played by Robert Pattinson, is recently hired, the older one, played by Willem Dafoe, has spent lots of time on the island, and they do not get along that well with each other due to their, uh, personality difference. The old man frequently annoys his young partner with his crusty eccentricity, and the young man gradually becomes more irritated and exasperated as being demanded to do a number of menial jobs by his older colleague.

However, for some reason, the old guy never allows his young partner to handle the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse, and it seems he is quite obsessed with that part of the lighthouse. At one night, the young man witnesses the old guy doing something odd at the top of the lighthouse, and he becomes more curious about whatever his old colleague is doing behind his back, though the old guy does not tell him much about that even while being incessantly loquacious all the time.

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In the meantime, it slowly turns out that the young man has been quite troubled in his mind for some vague reason. He dreams about many weird things including something which seems to be associated with his recent past, and we come to gather that he may not be very honest about himself. He often takes care of a certain biological urge with a small scrimshaw work he happened to discover on his first day of the island, and his state of unconsciousness is frequently haunted by several mysterious images including a seductive mermaid, which may be the manifestation of whatever has been repressed in his mind.

And the situation between the young man and the old man becomes more tense step by step. Although they sometimes become a bit more comfortable with each other as letting themselves loosened via night drinking, the old man demands the young man to do more work as usual, and the young man detests the old man more than before. The old man warns the young man not to kill a sea gull because that may cause bad luck, but, of course, the young man later happens to kill one certain sea gull partially because of his increasingly stressful work environment, and the movie calmly delivers this shocking moment of violence with the ominous foreshadowing of something worse to come.

And things soon get indeed become quite bad for the two guys. A big storm arrives not long after the killing of that sea gull, and they become isolated more than before – especially when they belatedly find that they do not have enough food except bottles of booze. As the storm continues to rage outside, they drink more and more, and the young man becomes a lot more agitated and disturbed while also revealing a bit more about himself to his old colleague, who seems more vicious and treacherous than before in the young man’s increasingly warped viewpoint.

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Around that narrative, we come to wonder more how reliable the young man’s viewpoint is. While some moments are clearly the projection of his unstable state of mind, other moments are rather ambiguous as blurring the line between reality and illusion more, and we accordingly become more distant to whatever is going on between the two main characters in the film as getting more confused and flabbergasted than before.

Nevertheless, the movie keeps holding our attention under Eggers’ confident direction, and I admire many of its impressive technical qualities including the cinematography by Jarin Blaschke. Deliberately shot in black and white film of 1.19:1 ratio, the movie is constantly filled with the stuffy sense of claustrophobia as also generating the stark, grainy texture of the late 19th century film, and the ambient score by Mark Korven is effectively utilized along with the recurring sound of foghorns on the soundtrack.

In case of Pattinson and Dafoe, they boldly hurl themselves together into the mouth of madness in addition to deftly handling their decidedly archaic dialogues (“Should pale death, with treble dread, make the ocean caves our bed, God who hears the surges roll deign to save our suppliant soul”), and they diligently carry the film as dynamically pulling and pushing each other on the screen. While Dafoe reminds us that he is still one of the most fearless actors of our time, Pattinson gives another fine performance to be added to his acting career which has been quite interesting during last several years, and I think he will continue to become more interesting during next ten years.

In conclusion, “The Lighthouse” is not exactly entertaining as your typical arthouse horror film, but it shows us that Eggers, who previously impressed me a lot with his debut feature film “The Witch” (2015), is indeed a talented filmmaker to watch. Although I like it a little less than “The Witch”, it is surely a distinctive work of art imbued with an uncompromising artistic vision, and I may revisit it just for appreciating its indelible mood and details more.

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