Robert Eggers

The Lighthouse

05/02/20

It’s always frustrating, isn’t it, when others commend the work of a particular director and – for the life of you – you just don’t see what they love about it?

I’ve felt like that about Quentin Tarantino, pretty much since Pulp Fiction onwards; more recently, I really didn’t care for Robert Eggers’ debut film, The Witch, which many respected critics hailed as nothing short of a masterpiece. Now here’s his sophomore effort, The Lighthouse, which arrives in cinemas virtually creaking beneath the weight of the many superlatives that have been heaped upon it. Of course I have to give him a second chance, right?

This doom laden two-hander, shot in grainy black and white on 35mm stock and projected in a claustrophobic 1:19:1 aspect ratio, concerns the story of two ‘wickies,’ despatched to a remote lighthouse off the coast of New England, where they are to live and work for a month. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is an old hand, who lords it over new recruit Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), making him take on most of the menial duties while he reserves the tending of the light itself as his own personal privilege. He also mentions that Winslow’s predecessor went mad after seeing some ‘enchantment in the light’ and hints that something bad happened to him.

The two men embark on their dull and thankless routine, which is depicted in punishing detail. Wake is a drinker of alcohol and, though Winslow resists the temptation to join him at first, he soon succumbs. When a terrible storm maroons the men long past the time when they should have been heading back to the mainland, madness and depravity rapidly descend upon them…

Sadly, I am left completely unstirred by what ensues. Here is a ‘horror’ movie that completely fails to generate any sense of threat, an allegory that cloaks its meaning to an irritating degree. What we’re left with is a study of two tedious examples of toxic masculinity, who spend most of the time in silence and then ramble away in what Eggers insists is an aproximation of the language of the late 19th century, but which is mostly rendered unintelligible by the over-enthusiastic sound effects. They fight a bit too. And sing. And dance.

Winslow’s character has recurring dreams (possibly memories, it’s never entirely clear) of discovering a mermaid and having sex with her – sadly that appears to be the only role for a woman in this film – and there are visions of tentacles, floating logs and a severed head that might just belong to Winslow’s predecessor.

There are various attempts to allude to classical elements. The killing of a bird presaging disaster is surely a nod to The Ancient Mariner, while a climactic image seems to refer to the myth of Prometheus. But honestly, there’s so little incident in this film’s one hour, forty-nine minute run, that I spend most of my time feeling as bored as its two protagonists. Dafoe and Pattinson are both excellent actors, but neither is given enough to do here (unless you count Wake’s unbridled flatulence) and, when the final credits roll, I leave wondering, once again, what it is about Eggers that generates so much adoration?

I really wanted to like this film. And I gave it my best shot. Honestly.

2 stars

Philip Caveney