The Lighthouse (2019) Movie Review – 31 Days of Halloween
Two lighthouse keepers try to maintain their sanity while living on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
Welcome to Knockout Horror and to day 22 of our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature. We covered Robert Eggers’ period folk horror movie The Witch in our 2022 31 Days of Halloween. So for 2023 let’s check out his sophomore effort The Lighthouse from 2019.
For those of you who don’t know, The Lighthouse follows the story of a pair of nineteenth century lighthouse keepers attempting to stay sane after finding themselves stranded on a remote New England lighthouse station due to a terrible storm. It’s really that simple. There is no major story depth or exposition to talk about here. We are literally watching two men gradually go through each progressive stage of madness as they become more and more isolated.
Eggers’ Sophomore Effort
Robert Eggers absolutely burst onto the horror scene with his feature length debut The Witch back in 2015. So it’s not all that much of a surprise that his follow up movie was a tremendous success as well. What is, perhaps, more of a surprise is that we are now talking about Robert Pattinson as a legitimately great actor. I have to be honest, I didn’t see that coming. I haven’t watched the Twilight movies but I have seen enough clips to know he was entirely checked out and putting in minimal effort in that role.
It seems, however, as time has gone on he has really applied himself to his craft in much the same way as Kristen Stewart has. Both have become brilliant actors and deserve tons of praise for shedding the shackles of terrible, fan-fiction-esque, horror tripe written by a moron. Why am I mentioning this so early in the review? Well, it’s quite simple. The Lighthouse is a completely character driven movie that is entirely dependent on the strength of its two main characters played by Pattinson and Willem Dafoe
Character Driven Horror
The entirety of The Lighthouse consists of the two characters interacting in one way or another. Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow begins a six week stint at the old, remote, lighthouse under the guidance of Dafoe’s former sailor Thomas Wake. Wake works Winslow like a dog and bans him from entering the lantern room. A room that Wake makes frequent, rather bizarre, trips to every night. The day before Winslow’s scheduled departure, a massive storm hits. Stranding the pair on the island and preventing help from reaching them.
This is where things begin to get really strange. The relationship between the pair shifts between tense, uncomfortable, aggressive and friendly. With both of the characters frequently over indulging in alcohol and alternating between being friends and foes. Hallucinations abound and Winslow’s continuing suspicion around Wake’s trips to the lantern room send him deeper into a cycle of paranoia. At its core, The Lighthouse is simply about the mental decline of two people who are completely isolated and void of hope. It’s really as simple as that.
It Shouldn’t Really Work
And, with that in mind, you could make the argument that it shouldn’t work. But it is the powerful performances of Pattinson and Dafoe that make The Lighthouse so utterly compelling. The movie is extremely dialogue heavy and much of this dialogue is both muted and hidden behind Dafoe’s thick sea dog accent. The pair’s interactions aren’t always clear but the result of them is and this is what keeps the story moving along. The basic mystery of the lantern room is offered up to the viewer every now and then as a tempting potential plot element. But the story always comes back to the increasing madness of the movie’s two characters.
The Lighthouse is one of those movies that you may come away from feeling a little more than simply confused. It’s rather strange because Eggers does such a good job dragging you into the world he has established. He attacks you with disconnected character conversations, occasional comedy, bizarre hallucinations and altogether too much phallic imagery. Before sending you back out into the world wondering what exactly you just witnessed and exactly what the point of the whole thing was. And that is, kind of, the key thing here. There isn’t really a point. This is just a presentation of the human condition and the effects of loneliness and isolation presented in its most raw form.
A Throw Back Horror
Beyond the meager story and, somewhat, anti-mainstream presentation of the characters. The Lighthouse stands out for just how unique of a movie it is visually. Filmed completely in black and white and presented in the entirely lesser used 1.19:1 aspect ratio. The Lighthouse looks like a movie pulled straight out of the 1920s. You could almost imagine it being accompanied by a quirky, piano based, musical score, no dialogue and subtitles for the character’s conversations.
Shots are tightly framed to highlight the claustrophobic nature of Winslow and Wake’s living situation. And Eggers rarely affords the characters much in the way of landscape. We are constantly reminded of just how isolated these characters are and how much they infringe on each other’s space. Lighting is minimal and only used when necessary to reflect the darkness of the island and the lighthouse. With the shadows almost acting as a constantly looming antagonist with the bright glow of the lantern offering fleeting hope of something to break up the never ending dark.
It’s a gorgeous movie in its own special way and a wonderful ode to black and white, silent, cinema. When you think of the movie from this perspective, things start to make a lot more sense. The Lighthouse is almost a modern day version of a silent movie. Complete with the almost ambiguous story telling and vague structure of many of the movies from this period.
Definitely Not For Everyone
It’s an inspired directional choice but, also, a very brave one. There is no doubt that the presentation of The Lighthouse will alienate many viewers. There are a lot of people who loved The Witch but simply didn’t enjoy this. And that is completely understandable. The Lighthouse lacks much of what makes horror appealing. It’s not particularly scary, it has extremely limited story, the dialogue is hard to follow and the visual style is completely different from what most people are used to. It almost takes art house horror to a whole different level in more ways than one.
This is a movie built on tension and the understanding of the situation the characters find themselves in. If you don’t buy into that then you won’t find much to enjoy. While most can likely appreciate the brilliant performances. There isn’t much to grab at here and if you don’t enjoy what is, essentially, simply a horror experience. You will probably fail to enjoy anything about the movie.
The Lighthouse absolutely isn’t for everyone and that is completely fine. It really occupies that strange realm of horror with movies like Skinamarink and Mother. Where recommending them is extremely difficult and secondary to simply saying “I enjoyed the experience”. Some people will enjoy the experience too and will find a lot to love; others simply won’t.
Final Thoughts and Score
The Lighthouse is a strange movie; almost an experience rather than a straight up horror. The heavily dialogue driven plot and very limited story make for a movie that is actually quite difficult to recommend. It’s gorgeous but the 1.19:1 aspect ratio and black and white presentation are sure to put some people off. With that being said, Pattinson and Dafoe’s committed and completely believable performances help keep you engaged and the bizarre imagery makes for something truly unique. If you are in the mood for something strange then you will perhaps find a ton to love in what is one of the most unique horror movies in years.