Robert Eggers isn’t for every horror fan, but if you’re looking for something cerebral, The Lighthouse shines. Like 2015’s The Witch, the director’s latest trades in anxiety and period-piece idiosyncrasy, which doesn’t scare like a mainstream horror movie but does make for an unsettling and memorable experience.
The Lighthouse plays out like a Victorian ghost story. Two strangers, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), take over lighthouse duties on an island somewhere off the New England coast. Isolated and often at odds, the men begin to notice strange things happening—but what’s real and what’s imagined is anybody’s guess.
Eggers masterfully toys with his audience, pairing macabre visions with matter-of-fact reveals to make us question absolutely everything. Somewhat early on, Winslow laments a storm that’s kept them stranded a few extra weeks on the island, but Wake casually lets drop that it’s only been one day. Is Wake fucking with Winslow, or is Eggers fucking with us? It’s hard to tell. As the duo descends into maybe-madness, the muddiness only thickens.
Technically, The Lighthouse utilizes several cinematic tricks to both stand out and serve the narrative. The last few years have seen plenty of filmmakers play with old-school aspect ratios, but it’s rare the move feels motivated beyond appealing to low-hanging nostalgia. Eggers opts for an atypical 1.19:1 frame here (tighter than your old 4:3 TV), which he pairs with black-and-white 35mm film not only to recall the early Hollywood sound era but also to force a bleak and unrelenting claustrophobia. Two shots put the characters always at arm’s length, which heightens their conflict later, and even the wides of Winslow walking the rocks feel constrictive. The lack of color reinforces the landscape’s dreariness, and the dark tones further obscure whatever the hell is going on.
The sound is just as noteworthy, its design as well as the dialogue unlike anything you’ll hear in most contemporary movies. There’s a genuineness and unease behind the most mundane noises—the engine room, a ballsy seagull, Wake’s persistent farting—which couples with the ominous score for lasting discomfort. Eggers’ meticulous, era-appropriate dialogue (a standout in The Witch, too) bolsters the authenticity pervading the movie.
Moby Dick- ish sailor talk could sound phony from the wrong actor, but Dafoe’s a stalwart at the top of his game. He absolutely nails the old sea dog routine, while Pattinson continues his downright incredible post-Twilight indie run (Good Time, High Life) as the salty subordinate. If you haven’t given the erstwhile vampire a chance since his sparkly days, now’s the time to reevaluate the actor and perhaps your life, because the man is putting together an impressive career.
Altogether, The Lighthouse is another early masterpiece for Eggers. Since expectations for The Witch left some disappointed, it’s worth driving home that this too isn’t really a “scary movie” in the modern sense. You’re not going to find many screams here. Instead, The Lighthouse blends elements of drama, psychological horror, thriller intrigue, and surrealism to build an immersive world that’s much closer to The Shining than it is to The Ring.
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman
Theater: Area theaters, now playing