Since the release of his debut film, “The Witch,” in 2016, director Robert Eggers has become one of the most acclaimed horror filmmakers in Hollywood, with “The Witch” winning the Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Screenplay and Best First Feature and the Empire Award for Best Horror.
For three years, audiences have breathlessly awaited his return. After watching this film, it’s easy to see why. “The Lighthouse” marks Eggers’ second feature outing and solidifies his place as a powerhouse director in both arthouse cinema and the horror genre.
Set on a desolate New England island in the 1890s, “The Lighthouse” stars Robert Pattinson (“Good Time,” “The Lost City of Z”) and Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) as a pair of isolated lighthouse keepers. For four weeks, the two men keep watch over the island, caring for the dilapidated property until their relief by the next ship.
Beyond even the usual trademarks of a quality film (acting, directing, screenplay, etc., which we’ll get to momentarily), Eggers makes it instantly apparent that he is in the business of crafting a special piece of art. It identifies itself immediately as unique and, for a variety of reasons, is unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen.
Of the films I have seen in 2019, this film is the most stylistically unique so far.
Shot on black-and-white 35 mm film, the movie not only feels as if it belongs to the late 19th century, but that it is a product itself of the period. From the rare square aspect ratio (as opposed to the usual widescreen) to the gritty – yet somehow still gorgeous and crisp – cinematography, everything feels as if we are watching something extremely far removed from today, even from this world.
Because of its authentic visual approach, it feels, on one hand, firmly rooted in its time– but because of its fantasy elements, it retains an otherworldly, hypnotic quality. It is because of this paradox that every frame is so exquisitely chilling.
The story feels like a perfectly suited addition to the old mythology of New England. It’s a masterfully crafted, mystifying tale of isolation, delusion, obsession and the phantasms induced by a struggle for power.
Eggers has created a movie that is tonally balanced even as it skirts between scenes that ride the line between horror, humor and downright insanity. As Pattinson and Dafoe endure the elements of the island and await their ever-more-ambiguous fates, the slow-building story moves from a relatively straightforward tale of cabin fever to a progressively fantastical thriller dripping in more subtext than we have time to process.
Elements of fantasy and myth are woven into the imagery in ways that make it hard to separate dream sequences, or hallucinations, from reality. Increasingly throughout the story, we feel as if something terrible lurks beneath the surface of the violent waves, hidden in the heavy fog unimpeached by the beacon of the lighthouse. The threat of sea monsters or oceanic sirens are felt as much as they are seen, serving as symbols for less tangible, more urgent beasts within the minds of the lightkeepers.
Mark Korven’s bone-chilling score is a crucial element, too, not only to the sonic design of the film but to the entire experience of watching it. Equal parts loud and subtle, its ethereal sounds are sifted laboriously into each scene and sequence, creating an atmosphere almost unbearably ominous and yet completely irresistible.
By the film’s thunderous conclusion, viewers will feel as if they have been submerged in something terribly significant and original, even if they’re still gasping for air and trying to make sense of it.
Robert Eggers, along with contemporaries like Ari Aster (“Hereditary,” “Midsommar”), Mike Flannigan (“Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “The Haunting of Hill House”) and James Wan (“The Conjuring,”) is among the few filmmakers working today that are reliable not only in the conception of original horror ideas, but the execution of quality films. He excels in the area of high-concept horror, but more than that, he succeeds in the task of storytelling.
Only time will tell where Eggers’ third film will take us, but if it’s anything like his first two offerings, we’ll be in for something special.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Traveler Score: A