Film Review | The Lighthouse: Struggling to capture the light

The Lighthouse is an unhinged psychological thriller engineered with the care of an obsessive antique furniture restorer... Robert Eggers’s follow-up to The Witch is a feverish yet oddly charming descent into madness

In cinema as in all art, boredom is the worst possible offence, and when most of what’s on offer is either another steroid-pumped franchise entry or a variant of the same, the threat of glazed-over-eyes remains ever on the horizon. For this reason alone – apart from its lovingly ‘vintage’ visual sense, the inspired potpourri of its subtextual underpinnings and a truly game effort from its two-hander cast – writer-director Robert Eggers’s second feature already sprints ahead in the race of contemporary mainstream cinema.

Riding high on the runaway critical success of his feminist-adjacent period chiller The Witch (2015), Eggers pulls off a triple-whammy trick that only the likes of Darren Aronovsky have managed over a sustained period of time: roping in star power and courting mainstream attention while weaving the weirdest of weird tales.

‘Weird Tales’ is right in many ways, being the title of the magazine in which the now-canonical (though always socio-politically problematic) early 20th century American horror author H.P. Lovecraft cut his teeth. Lovecraft is only one element in the gamey broth that Eggers has cooked up for us, and never a direct one – his influence is hinted at through the oblique appearance of tentacles and an overbearing sense of dread brought about by a madness which may or may not be nudged to further effectiveness by ancient forces lying dormant within the natural world.

But Lovecraft is only one weave in this tapestry, a tapestry whose origins can, in turn, be traced back to one of the author’s own key influences. The germ of Robert Eggers’s film was actually implanted by his brother Max, whose ultimately aborted efforts to adapt Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Lighthouse’, only nominally titled as such as it refers to an unfinished work, likely the troubled American genre luminary’s very last attempt to put prose to paper before his untimely demise in 1849.

And while all that remains from that early iteration of the project is that very same title, a distinctly Poe-like aura of turn of the century American Gothic hangs over the proceedings, while auxiliary influences ranging from Herman Melville all the way back to Greek myth are also poured in.

If that all sounds like a too-literary, top-heavy exercise in intellectual wankery over substance, fear not. Because for one thing, actual, literal wankery does take place throughout the course of the film, and more than once. Indeed, far from coasting on high brow literary references in a rarefied atmosphere of intellectual detachment, Robert Eggers gets down and dirty and allows what is initially a simple-enough premise to descend into glorious, inspired madness.

In the late 19th century, an (eventually) self-confessed drifter keen to take any job that comes by, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is sent to serve as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of New England, where he is to be accompanied by the seasoned sailor Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe). Apparently a taciturn teetotaler to Wake’s hard-drinking, hard-driving teller of tall tales, Winslow quickly unravels under the strain of both the harsh weather conditions, his own past catching up with him… and Wake’s apparently atrocious cooking.

Yes, a discordant set of concerns, but the very mix is redolent of both an accurate representation of a damaged psyche and Eggers’s own ability to squeeze in rare but clear dollops of black humour into an otherwise deliberate trip down the murky alleyways of a tortured psyche (or is that two)?

Shot in gorgeous black and white with an aspect ratio that recalls the silent film era, Eggers succeeds in using these tricks to his favour without allowing himself to fall into the style over substance trap. Much like Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood’ channelled the film-maker’s obsessive nostalgia into something positive, helping to create a fully immersive storyworld, so do Eggers’s stylistic choices here contribute to a ‘hand-made’ effect that increases the sense of fragility and threat that encompasses the enclosed universe occupied by Winslow and Wake. It feels like a tactile world, which then makes the ensuing weirdness all the more disturbing when it does intrude.

But of course, a two-hander is likely to sink or swim (no pun intended) on the strength of its central performances, and no sinking is allowed here. Defoe is reliably excellent as the grouchy old sea salt, speaking in a sometimes baffling but beautifully scripted period-appropriate dialogue, which he’s sometimes allowed to expand upon with gloriously over-the-top monologues whose Shakespearean gravity is undercut by an inherent absurdity that lies within. Meanwhile, Pattinson continues his post-Twilight winning streak, taking on a role by turns tortured and repellent; an always-wobbly narrator who grows all but entirely unreliable towards the end.

The verdict

While it may not yield obvious pleasures for those looking for a relaxing time at the movies, Robert Eggers’s second feature after the equally jolting and hypnotically beautiful ‘The Witch’ certainly stands as a fresh and much-needed balm against the plethora of made-to-measure franchise entries and remakes that plague our screens.

The Lighthouse will be screening at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema, Valletta February 16 (8.30pm), February 22 (6pm), February 25 (7.30pm), February 27 (7.30pm), March 1 (8.30pm), March 11 (7.30pm) and March 15 (6pm)