The Lighthouse (2019) review: Brilliantly unnerving
Ivan Radford | On 17, Jun 2020
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman
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“Should pale death, with treble dread, make the ocean caves our bed, God who hears the surges roll, deign to save the suppliant soul.” Those are the words recited as a toast by veteran lighthouse keeper Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe) as he drinks with his new helper Ephraim (Robert Pattinson). The words are recited almost nightly as the duo embark on a four-week stint tending a remote lighthouse in Nova Scotia, and, as each day passes, they take on a ritualistic quality that verges on the magical – or the cursed. Director Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch sees him leave the forest far behind, but his characters are still damned lost in the woods.
We join Ephraim as he arrives at the storm-lashed outpost – the closest we come to a glimpse of the outside world. From then, we, like Ephraim, are stuck there for what is meant to be a month but soon comes to feel like eternity. He’s given all the disgusting, day-to-day jobs to do, such as cleaning out the toilet and refilling the oil tanks, while Tom spends all day “keeping the light”, hiding up the top of the tower with the glowing, ethereal beacon of illumination and hope.
It’s no surprise that Ephraim soon grows to resent his superior, and the tensions that bubble up between them are gripping to watch. Willem Dafoe is more barnacle than man as the mocking, menacing Tom, while Robert Pattinson is magnetic to watch in perhaps his best performance of an already distinguished career; his gaunt features here look like those of a silent movie star. They spit out insults with a searing, disturbing relish, tearing into each other like the scenery is edible. Then they start tearing into that too.
The script – by Robert and brother Max Eggers – is stuffed with wonderfully spiky barbs, including one particularly choice line involving the word “curdled”. It also weaves its descent into madness with myths and monsters, from the mermaid that appears to Ephraim (Valeriia Karaman) who may or may not be real to the men’s primitive need to stoke the elusive, God-like fire. It’s laced with the tragic eeriness of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and framed by DoP Jarin Blaschke with a claustrophobic intensity emphasised by the Movietone aspect ratio – an even tighter, square form than Academy ratio, which highlights the towering phallic spectre of the titular structure.
The visuals are as gorgeously pristine as they are vividly haunting – all the more so thanks to their monochrome shading and striking contrasts – and the sound design is impeccably unsettling, from the rain lashing at the window panes to a particularly aggressive seagull. It all adds to something horribly memorable, darkly funny and deeply unnerving. Is this purgatory? A straight dive into hell? A straight B-movie tale of survival? As fog-shrouded mysteries and sweaty macho power struggles collide, it doesn’t matter how you choose to read beneath its sickly surface, because the surface is so wonderfully, magnetically uncomfortable. If The Witch got under your skin, The Lighthouse sees Robert Eggers seep into your nervous system with a clammy dread that leaves you wanting to take a shower.
The Lighthouse is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of an £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.