alex’s review published on Letterboxd:
Keeping secrets, are you?
While this review does not have any real spoilers, I do go into some minor plot details, so be aware.
From the opening shot of the film to the last, I was entirely enthralled throughout Robert Egger's masterpiece, The Lighthouse. It's not difficult to see what sets apart the film from almost everything else being released today. Just viewing some screencaps or the trailer will make it clear that this is not your average movie. And, to put it bluntly, it isn't.
I guess I'll start off with praising the most obvious; the performances. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson easily give their career-best performances, which is saying a lot. After all, Pattinson killed both his roles in Good Time & High Life and Dafoe has been consistent for years, from The Last Temptation of Christ to At Eternity's Gate. But even with the two boasting fantastic careers, they both completely outdid themselves with this one. Robert Pattinson plays Winslow, a former timberman turned lighthouse keeper, trying to lead a decent life. He starts the film as a very quiet man, trying his best to avoid any conversation and connection. But as the film goes on, you witness Winslow's downward spiral into insanity and the reveal of his true character. And Pattinson portrays this very complex and layered character flawlessly. He goes through an extreme variety of emotions with ease while remaining completely authentic. But, the performance that really stole the show was Dafoe’s. In the film, he plays Thomas, an old lighthouse keeper, practically on the verge of madness. He speaks with an almost incomprehensible accent and farts quite a lot. His character is the very definition of over the top and cartoonish, but yet, still terrifying. Throughout the film, he delivers several monologues that sent chills down my spine without fail. And this character would not have worked without Willem Dafoe. It’s clear he immersed himself into the role completely and didn’t hold anything back. One moment he’s drunkenly singing old sailor songs and the next he’s insanely monologuing to Winslow about his demise. He’s always enthralling and there’s never a dull moment with him on the screen. The two just completely knocked it out of the park and gave two of the performances maybe ever.
But the performances aren’t everything this film got right. Pretty much everything else about it is downright perfect.
The cinematography featured in the film is breathtaking. Not in the same way a Malick or Deakins film is, but in its own, unique sense. The film boasts a 1.19:1, which in itself sets it apart from pretty much anything being released today. But this very different aspect ratio isn’t used pretentiously, but rather to further convey the sense of claustrophobia and cabin fever the characters are experiencing. The use of a monochromatic color palette also elevated the film quite tremendously. Sure, it could be claimed again that this is just a cop-out to be different, but I don’t think that could be further from the truth. The black and white look of the film helps the film feel more vintage and authentic to the time period. I may be looking too deep into this, but it also symbolizes the very binary dynamic between our two characters, without much of a grey area. But in terms of the actual cinematography, the film is top-notch. It utilizes static shots very frequently in moments of relative peace, making the intense scenes with lots of camera movement that much more intense by contrast. The blocking and shot composition are also excellent, with one shot, in particular, is a personal favorite. It occurs early in the film when we are still being introduced to the characters and their environment. This shot if of the characters’ living quarters, in which two beds lie of the sides of a wide beam, showing a somewhat invisible barrier between two forces. It’s not flashy or dynamic but put together extremely well.
The sound, which I wasn’t really expecting, was also masterfully executed. In terms of sound design, the movie was flawless. Whether it was the incessant caws of seagulls or booms of a vessel’s horn, the sound helped the film’s authenticity very subtly. The movie was loud, but not in an unbearable way. But in a way that always kept me on edge and tense, utilizing only the simple element of sound. The score was done by Mark Korven, while not necessarily masterful, still fits the film perfectly and also helped with the tension tremendously.
The time machine production design was nothing short of astonishing as well. The authenticity of a 19-century New England lighthouse was uncanny. The film felt very dirty and gritty, all thanks to the production design. It all felt so real without ever feeling like sacrifices had to be made for authenticity's sake.
The writing on display is also high caliber. The film was written by director Robert Eggers and his brother, Max Egger, and it’s clear the two have some talent. The film is undeniably a horror film, but elements of comedy are slipped in there so well that it’s seamless. One of the movie’s funniest jokes comes directly after a haunting moment, and it works so well. For a large chunk of the film, it’s just two men talking, and while the performances definitely help it be completely captivating, the writing is the foundation of it all. A simple exchange of a word or two is just as engaging as a fistfight in this film. This is all because of a wonderfully clever script that wraps up the tale of these two souls perfectly.
The ambiguity surrounding the entire product also deserves some praise. While many audiences want concrete answers and clear messages, a very ambitious one works just as well for me. Because of the disproportionate amount of questions presented to answered, the film has been on my mind ever since I saw it. It has failed to leave my center of attention and has continued to challenge me. The film features very clear mythological symbolism (The Sirens, Icarus, etc.) and has no clear theme to it all. You can really get what you want from this movie and it would make sense. I have yet to decipher much of the film’s intent and will need to do so with the help of a rewatch.
Now in terms of how it compares to Egger’s 2015 directorial debut The Witch, it should be clear that The Lighthouse, in my opinion, it is a much better film. While I think The Witch is undeniably a fantastic film with a great script and performances, it does lack in some aspects. The color palette of the movie, while probably just trying to look authentic to the time period, doesn’t look great and gives off the look of raw footage. There are also some major pacing issues during the first act and a somewhat undeserved ending. All of these issues are not present in The Lighthouse, and everything that was great in The Witch is turned up to eleven. The pacing is incredibly natural and fluid and the ending, while ambiguous, is amazing. In my opinion, it’s Egger’s learning from his mistakes with his debut and completely refining his craft with his sophomore film.
To conclude these ramblings of a moron in the disguise of a review, The Lighthouse is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is easily the best movie this year has had to offer and will undoubtedly become a classic. Now excuse me will I single-handedly begin Willem Dafoe’s Oscar campaign.