The Lighthouse review – inner demons get lost in the fog

This period chiller starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe sacrifices storyline for atmosphere

In conjuring mood, atmosphere and mounting tension, American writer-director Robert Eggers is a skilful craftsman. Following his taut 2015 debut feature, The Witch, cult indie production company A24 has given him carte blanche and, to his credit, Eggers hasn’t held back. A spooky, late-Victorian period piece, shot in black and white on location in Nova Scotia, this two-hander features Willem Dafoe as bossy, flatulent lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, and Robert Pattinson as his younger, more taciturn apprentice, Ephraim Winslow. The island’s quirks include appalling weather, a belligerent seagull, and a stash of kerosene for when the rum runs dry. A perfect storm for a descent into madness.

There are striking details and images to admire, such as the film’s use of the 1.19:1 Movietone ratio, recalling the square framing of early sound movies, or Pattinson’s oil-slicked cheekbones blanched to blinding white. Yet increasingly these devices begin to feel like technical exercises that dazzle while obscuring the story – or lack thereof. The lighthouse itself is a liminal space between land and sea that works as a kind of purgatory, though the assaulting whirr of machinery suggests the churning cogs of hell. The narrative tracks the disintegration of a man’s spirit, but Eggers is interested in his guts (the film is ripe with sewage, semen and chamber pots of shit), not his soul. Frat boy humour is dressed up in an expensive, arthouse jacket.

Dafoe is credible as a man dotty with power, but Pattinson, despite his go-for-broke energy, strains to keep up. The lewd, overwrought, Herman Melville-inspired dialogue is alternately mumbled and shouted, the intense, grand guignol performances more interesting as an experiment (what if we could get Willem Dafoe to bark like a dog?) than conducive to eliciting meaning.

Watch a trailer for The Lighthouse.


Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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