LFF 2019: The Lighthouse Review
Here’s one to put the wind up ye’: Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch is another archaic slice of folk horror, a tale that one imagines spilling from the pages of a sodden, barnacle-encrusted tome. Which is not to say it doesn’t feel at home on the big screen - few films have seemed more perfect for the medium.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe transfix as two lighthouse keepers entrusted with a four-week tenure on a tiny island. Dafoe’s Thomas Wick is a sea salt-seasoned veteran of the waves, and Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow is his latest lackey. Winslow mans the foghorn, coal supply and rusty water pump by day, while Wick secludes himself with the lantern by night.
Though initially hostile, a hard-knock relationship emerges between the two, even as Winslow is haunted by nightmares of sirens, his anxious disposition not aided by Wick’s forceful, ‘Captain Birdseye - the scurvy years’ act. Ever-flowing, nondescript alcohol fuels the flames of friendship, but also Winslow’s obsession with discovering why his master seems so entranced by the light.
Amidst Jarin Blaschke’s stark monochrome landscapes, the glimmer atop the sodden tower is a light we also cling to - the ocean is a black void like outer space, with distant moonlight glimmering like the far away stars. A boxy aspect ratio (1.19:1, to be precise) echoes the cramped confines of the cabins and furnace rooms in which Winslow wiles away the (barely) daylight hours. Coarse, sometimes deafening sound design keeps us as unsettled as his mind. The foghorn is like an air raid siren or haunted call from beyond the ocean: the much-parodied honks of Inception are mere field mice in comparison.
These regular, clear, piercing roars stand in contrast to the gurgled, half-choked, often indistinguishable chatter between the two men. In the midst of the spittle, there’s a suggestion that Wick’s previous underling was driven mad, but by what means is left for Winslow to discover as the already shrieking nights seem to draw endlessly in.
Pattinson’s sweaty brow and unsteady gaze speak louder than the crashing waves, though his accent has poor sea legs. Dafoe is in his absolute element in a role that he seems put on this Earth to inhabit, making exultant glory of dialogue that’s somewhere between poetry and puke. He farts, barks and “Yar har”s his way through the film as effortlessly as the wind whistling through every frame.
His warning of Neptune’s wrath speaks to a supernatural element, and anyone who’s been caught under the spell of The Witch may find themselves holding out for such a revelation. Sirens, spirits and hilariously obstinate seagulls aside, there’s plenty in the snowballing mental collapse of both men and a collection of unshakable images to discombobulate the mind and rattle the bones of the hardiest horror veteran. Consider me timbers well and truly shivered.
The Lighthouse premieres as the headline gala for the London Film Festival's 'Cult' strand on October 5th, and is in UK cinemas on January 31st, 2020