Film review: The Lighthouse fuses high contrast horror with dark comedy

★★★★★

Robert Eggers returns after his occult puritanical horror The Witch with a far more blackly comic piece.

The Lighthouse isn’t simply a film shot in black & white—it’s a picture that resonates deeply with stark binary contrasts, even as these oppositions frequently collapse. Where many might accuse A24 (the ultra-hip, social media-savvy distributors of The Lighthouse) of having fanned the flame of shallow visual gimmicks since their inception in 2012, with his second feature Robert Eggers proves striking imagery and strong storytelling are no strange bedfellows.

Certainly there’s no pretence to the film’s title: the entire runtime is spent confined to a lighthouse and its surrounding craggy rock. Limited to a cast of two, we follow an ageing wickie (a lighthouse keeper to you or me) played by a suitably kooked out Willem Dafoe, and his new underling, a far more grizzled Robert Pattinson than wider audiences may be used to. Predictably, things are far from smooth sailing.

The first binary contrast is found between these two, both on the screen and beyond it. Dafoe has always managed to toe the line between audience darling and critically daring; Pattinson, on the other hand, has spent the past decade post-Twilight striving to prove his acting chops, limiting himself to independent, well-lauded fare like Good Time and High Life. Much of the film hinges on this dynamic—namely, the elder statesman meeting the hungry new talent—and it repeatedly works like gangbusters.

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Confined to a dismal rock in the late 1800s, with limited hope of contact with the outside world, the two men clash repeatedly over matters both trivial and extreme—the resultant mess plays out like a more caustic rendition of Withnail & I (there’s certainly a similar amount of alcohol in play). Surrounded by a near-comical array of ill omens, including one particularly belligerent one-eyed seagull, the low drone of the lighthouse itself and, well, the thunderous roar of the ocean, the pair of lighthouse hands begin to lose any sense of a world beyond their station.

Eggers’ decision to shoot in black and white reflects these two initially irreconcilable characters, but the refracted light of the water slowly makes everything bleed together. What first appears to be a deeply testosterone-infused battle of will between two gruff facial-hair-sporting labourers frequently turns and pivots, lingering on moments of homoeroticism and fraternal camaraderie amongst the web of drunken confusion. Theirs is far from a simple relationship.

If this all sounds very intense, it is. Backed by a swarm of atonal strings that sound more like the cries of lost sailors than actual melodies, the boxed frame Eggers utilises rarely allows for a moment of escape. And yet, what makes The Lighthouse so rewarding is that it’s also deeply funny; indeed, the final binary opposite Eggers folds in on itself is the divide between screeches of terror and hoots of laughter. The pair’s propensity for drinking lends itself to this moment-to-moment flippancy; one minute they’re merrily singing sea shanties, and the next they’re back to vicious squabbling.

As time dilates and the abstract image of the titular lantern distorts reality further and further, Eggers steers his ship to the edge of self-indulgence, before veering adroitly away. Needless to say, this is a deeply conflicting picture that stirs the stomach as much as it sends shivers down the spine, all the while shining a bright light on man’s most basic instincts. Marrying the pursuit of distinct visuals with the specific narrative at hand is no easy task, but it’s at the heart of cinema as a medium. With The Lighthouse, Eggers handily does both.

The Lighthouse is lighting up screens at The Electric in Birmingham now—don’t miss it.


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Blaise Radley

Film editor, occasional writer, and sporadically coherent ranter. Bear in mind that if it stars Robert Pattinson or is directed by Bong Joon-Ho it's probably getting an extra star off the bat.