Cannes 2019: The Lighthouse Review
In an era when most budding horror filmmakers look up to James Wan, emulating his jump scare schtick wherever they feel fit, a boldly original voice in the genre like Robert Eggers needs to be celebrated. After the critical success of his abstract 2016 horror The Witch, he signed on to direct a reimagining of Nosferatu - but with that project seemingly fallen by the wayside, he’s instead channelled his desire to update the early horror films of the German Expressionism movement into his boldly original second feature. Whereas many horror filmmakers go out of their way to belabour their love for genre films of the past, repeating the same scares as their influences to diminishing returns, Eggers uses his influences as a jumping off point for something altogether crazier.
Although the director has referred to The Lighthouse as a horror, the truth is, his film is wilder and less easily classifiable than this sounds. It mostly takes the shape of a paranoid psychological thriller, with queasy surrealist interludes, and most surprisingly of all, a healthy smattering of fart gags and an unlikely bromantic undercurrent. It’s a relentless nightmare, and yet, because of the comic levity provided throughout by both lead actors, it still oddly feels like Eggers letting his hair down in comparison with his previous film. There is nothing as unnerving as the most striking sequences in The Witch - in fact, for the more adventurous genre audiences out there, this unpredictable ride could constitute the year’s most unlikely crowd pleaser.
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star as Thomas Wake and Winslow, two men hired to tend to a lighthouse in a tiny, deserted island in the middle of the ocean. Wake is something of a veteran, having been in this role after having to quit his former job as a sailor, with Winslow his new right hand man after his former employee died after a number of bizarre visions. The pair are hired on a four week basis, to help renovate the lighthouse, and make sure it is in working order - but on the final day, they get drunk and miss their boat back to land. With a storm ravishing that could lead them stranded for several months, the pair dig into their provisions (in this case: copious amount of alcohol) to try and avoid the panic. The only problem is, Winslow is getting increasingly paranoid, and starts having the same surreal visions as Wake’s former employee ranging from murderous seagulls to mermaids swam ashore. As the drinks flow and the mainland gets further out of reach, the pair stray further towards insanity.
Although not as straightforward in its horror inclinations as The Witch, it does become apparent that Eggers has a fondness for finding something frightening within unassuming animals. If The Witch made people scared of goats, then The Lighthouse will do the same for seagulls, in a maritime spin on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Similarly, Eggers’ influences may be more highbrow than most horror filmmakers, with nods to everybody from Murnau to Bergman within his chilling tale, but there is also an extensively researched approach to the screenplay too. Like with his previous feature’s use of old English, he’s studied archaic maritime language on a far closer inspection than merely thumbing through his copy of Moby Dick. He clearly cares passionately about wanting the scares to land, but it’s far more impressive that he would extensively research the particulars of the film’s dialogue, all but daring critics to dismiss his work as a genre film not requiring in-depth analysis.
But as awe-inspiringly crafted as The Lighthouse is, it wouldn’t have the same impact if it weren’t for the two committed performances at the film’s centre. Willem Dafoe gives into the grotesquerie of Thomas Wake, avoiding comparisons with The Simpsons’ Captain McAllister even as he delivers all his lines with a thick accent that would be a walking parody in anybody else’s hands. Pattinson, fast becoming one of the greatest actors working, strays further from his teen heartthrob days than ever before, channelling Klaus Kinski in his descent into madness, his facial expressions contorting into sheer hysteria at the tip of a hat. But it’s when the two actors are together that the film really shines - Winslow may suffer from paranoid delusions when he’s alone, but when paired with Dafoe’s Wake, suddenly becomes one half of an odd couple comedic double act. In-between the heightened delusions involving tentacles and violent seagulls, there are hilarious sequences of bickering; a particular highlight is seeing the pair transform into an old married couple as Winslow airs an extensive criticism on his workmate’s cooking.