Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 8, 2020)
Back in 2015, Robert Eggers made his feature directorial debut with The Witch, a critically-acclaimed horror tale. Four years later, Eggers returns with The Lighthouse, another period piece.
Set in New England circa the late 19th century, lumberjack Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) agrees to a four-week job as part of a pair who serve on a remote lighthouse. This partners him with Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), a grizzled veteran keeper.
Stuck together in close quarter and faced with stressful work, Ephraim and Thomas quickly get on each other’s nerves. This leads to various hallucinations and confrontations.
Witch didn’t set box offices on fire, but with a $4 million budget, its $40 million worldwide meant it turned a tidy profit. Given that Lighthouse sported an identical $4 million budget, it made some money as well.
However, despite continued critical praise and the presence of two actual movie stars via Dafoe Pattinson, Lighthouse sputtered to $18 million worldwide, well below the gross of Witch.
I suspect audiences simply warmed less to a grim black and white drama about two dudes stuck in a claustrophobic setting. Witch promised a fairly straightforward scary story – it didn’t deliver anything as simple as the title implied, but it came with more obvious audience appeal.
With trailers that couldn’t imply a tight plot and dank visuals, Lighthouse lacked the same commercial appeal. One would think Dafoe and Pattinson could’ve moved some tickets, but apparently they failed to overcome the inherent negatives.
Perhaps Eggers just went a little too far into Stylistic Overload with Lighthouse. While Witch took some liberties, it didn’t compare with the black and white photography and quirky 1.19:1 aspect ratio found here.
Toss in strong “period dialect” as well as a near obsession with unpleasant bodily functions and it becomes pretty clear why Lighthouse failed to find much of an audience. Whereas Witch remained “mainstream” enough to sell tickets, Lighthouse offers no obvious appeal to the broader audience.
Not that every movie needs to be safe for a general crowd, and there’s clearly a place for the oddball in the cinematic universe. Still, Lighthouse too often comes across as a movie far more focused on its own quirks than characters/narrative.
Eggers really seems to delight in the foulness of the keepers’ existence. They fart all the time, and they live in dirty, unpleasant circumstances that Eggers appears to want to make look as awful as possible.
I get the purpose, especially because Lighthouse goes down a dark psychological rabbit hole. If we need to view the growing insanity, then the surroundings need to be abysmal enough to drive that way.
Still, Eggers feels more concerned with the minutiae than the bigger picture, especially as it relates to the characters. While we don’t really expect a strong plot in a movie about two guys stuck on an island, we’d like good character development.
And we get some, but the movie still feels a bit weak in that regard, especially because Eggers ratchets the dankness to 11 from the very start. Though matters get worse as the movie progresses, everything seems so awful from the beginning there the film lacks much room to grow in that regard.
This doesn’t make Lighthouse a bad movie, and it comes with enough weird momentum to keep the viewer occupied. It creates an intriguing little world for itself, and the actors give it their all.
Though soon to be the next Batman, I respect Pattinson’s general refusal to follow the easy path to movie stardom. After the Twilight flicks, he could’ve embraced one lame romantic drama after another, but instead, he mainly pursued artsy fare like this.
Pattinson submerges his ego as the unstable Ephraim, and Dafoe goes all out as the weathered wickie. Lighthouse makes him look like the Gorton’s fisherman and sticks him with dialogue straight out of The Big Little Book of Maritime Clichés, but he makes it work.
If one scene from Lighthoue persists in the culture, it’ll be one in which Ephraim refuses to praise Thomas’s cooking. The older keeper goes on a fire and brimstone rant that becomes absurdly theatrical in nature.
However, Dafoe pulls it off, as he makes us believe the absurdity. The kicker line from Pattinson also gives the movie one of its few laughs.
Lighthouse seems too self-indulgent and aggressively quirky to become a truly satisfying movie. Still, it shows enough inventiveness to merit a look from viewers who can accept its bizarre nature.