I’d love to say The Lighthouse is an ambitious failure – that Robert Eggers tried to tap into something heady, existential, or even primal, and just wound up coming up short. If only it were a thematic or narrative mess, or an admirable but flawed attempt at provocation that unfortunately missed the mark. Instead, Eggers’ follow up to his chilling debut, The Witch, is a hollow venture that will likely resonate with many, despite offering nothing for them to ponder as they walk out of the theater. Its primary saving grace preventing it from being an interminable bore is the intoxicating, stark visual presentation. A characteristically sensational performance from Willem Dafoe doesn’t hurt either.
Since the film is set in the late 19th century, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm black and white film with a claustrophobic 1.19:1 aspect ratio to make the visual presentation evocative of early photography, and it is quite stunning. Every frame is meticulously composed, highlighting the sharp contrast between light and dark. The frame itself is tighter than the Academy ratio which allows Eggers to force his audience’s focus – there’s no escaping the haunting imagery on display, no subliminal details hiding off in the corner. This keen attention to detail is a resounding success when it comes to the visual style, but this painstaking focus on style doesn’t mask the film’s fundamental emptiness.
I don’t inherently dislike films that prioritize style over substance – I love Enter the Void, for instance, and large chunks of that unwieldy behemoth are essentially just aerial shots gliding over Tokyo – but there needs to be some sort of inventive hook, something I haven’t seen before, some narrative or thematic ambiguity that I can mull over either in the cinema or on the drive home. The Lighthouse’s story is threadbare – two lighthouse keepers become stranded on a remote island during a storm and start to lose their minds…or do they…or do I care? – and apart from featuring an abundance of bodily fluids, Eggers doesn’t do much to make the film particularly shocking, grotesque, or horrifying.
Anyone aware of the concept, or even just the marketing for the film knows to expect a creeping descent into madness. Sadly, this is one of the film’s major failings. From almost the beginning we get bizarre imagery and little glimpses behind the curtain of what we can expect to follow, but instead of propelling headfirst into nightmarish sea-based chaos, the pacing is consistently slow, bordering on monotonous. It never fully delivers on the promise of all-out grotesque chaos or overbearing dread. The film’s muted strangeness and general discomforting atmosphere may be enough for some but it didn’t strike me as especially creepy or compelling.
Dafoe’s energetic performance is engaging enough to keep The Lighthouse from being completely stale. Robert Pattinson, however, puts in the worst work I’ve seen from him this side of the Twilight saga. The film is essentially a two-hander in one location so naturally Dafoe’s experience with theater acting gives him a vast advantage over his scene partner, but, where Dafoe gleefully chews the scenery and makes a meal of every line, Pattinson is overly mannered and often looks lost and unconfident. Pattinson apparently hated rehearsing while Dafoe welcomed the process, and this divergence in their acting styles comes across in the disparity between their performances.
Ultimately, a genuinely breathtaking aesthetic and a strong supporting performance isn’t enough to make The Lighthouse work. The film doesn’t explore any new or interesting narrative or thematic territory. Eggers is obviously influenced by Ingmar Bergman (which he makes clear in his episode of the A24 Podcast with Ari Aster) and much of The Lighthouse resembles a gender-swapped version of Persona, but drained of all subtext and ambiguity. If only Eggers had put as much thought into the writing as he did the actual production, this might have been a dense, layered, and haunting work.
There’s obvious talent behind and in front of the camera, and it pains me that much of it is wasted on something so empty. Formally audacious, but resoundingly tame in about every other way, The Lighthouse is one of this year’s biggest disappointments. Those willing to submit to the allure and intoxication of the film’s surface-level pleasures will walk away satisfied, if not elated, but for the rest of us looking for something more complex or provocative under the surface, The Lighthouse is about as exciting as a cold dead fish.