‘The Lighthouse’ is brilliance in black and white
Robert Eggers’ ambitious period-horror is the finest horror film in nearly 40 years
Movie: “The Lighthouse”
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
Horror films have seen a renaissance in the 2010s.
Ari Aster is releasing terrifying films like “Midsommar” and “Hereditary” that shock as much as they garner critical acclaim. “Get Out” was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in 2018. Even a good “Halloween” movie came out in 2018.
Along with those films, director Robert Eggers also made a name for himself with 2015’s “The Witch,” a 1600s New England horror story of struggling faith, family bonds and Satan. Critics regarded it a masterwork of horror soon after release and it stood out with its oppressive atmosphere and use of period-drama dialogue.
Even if it didn’t live up to the hype, it showcased Eggers as a director with a lot of promise.
Enter his newest film, “The Lighthouse.”
From the trailer, it was obvious that the film was going to be something special. The stark black-and-white style, the 1.19:1 aspect ratio and the tableau framing throughout immediately differentiated it from other horror movies, “The Witch” included.
Seeing it in full was a different experience altogether.
Eggers’ films can be seen as brutal and hostile to viewers at first. Both “The Witch” and the “The Lighthouse” throw viewers into a world they have no relation to and show human suffering at its most potent. But “The Lighthouse” in particular utilizes gorgeous cinematography, masterful use of soundtrack and sound design and incredible performances to offset and enhance that brutality and hostility. It is cinema at its finest, and if Eggers truly wanted to be brutal and hostile, he would not have made a film that looked so damn beautiful.
Those who expect a great, beautifully shot and well-acted horror film will experience the greatest piece of horror on film since “The Shining.”
To sum up the story without spoilers, “The Lighthouse” is about two lighthouse keepers (wickies) in the 1890s, one of whom is a veteran wicky named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), and the other –– Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) –– who has never worked at a lighthouse. They struggle to get along as Winslow starts to lose his mind. Delving further into the plot would drift into spoiler territory, but the plot is not what makes this film so incredible.
Nearly everything about this film is praiseworthy. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and some of the best framing and camerawork since 2014’s “Birdman.” It is obvious that Eggers meticulously planned every shot in the film and the tableau framing gives many scenes a moving painting-like quality. The nearly square aspect ratio creates a sense of claustrophobia and forces the viewer to focus on what in other films would merely be center frame.
The soundtrack is spine-tingling. At some points, it broods and at some points it soars, but at no point is it unfitting to what’s happening on screen. It never blends into the background, always making itself known.
What truly makes the film, however, are the performances by Dafoe and Pattinson. These are seriously career-defining pieces of acting and both actors get their respective chances to shine.
Dafoe’s Thomas is an unpredictable, hard-drinking sea-captain type who waxes-poetic on tales about the sea and he completely disappears into the role. It is hard to tell he is even acting. On the other hand, Pattinson’s Winslow is a chance for him to showcase his dynamic range. Initially reserved, the slow creeping insanity that the film develops is paced by the slow creeping insanity of Pattinson’s sledgehammer performance.
Combined, the individual performances and interaction between the characters make for some of the best acting of the past 50 years.
It is difficult to express just what makes “The Lighthouse” so fantastic without giving away what actually occurs in the film. To call it merely terrifying would be misleading; this movie is also darkly comedic and deliriously surreal, but it is always incredible. It just has to be seen to be believed.
“The Lighthouse” is a triumph of what a horror film can be in 2019. It is a triumph of what arthouse cinema can be in 2019. It is the best horror film of the past 39 years and the perfect way to close a decade that has seen horror mostly at the top of its game.
Alex Whetham is an asst. arts editor and can be reached at Alex.Whetham@ubspectrum.com.