Its best to watch The Lighthouse with no prior information. Not that knowing anything about The Lighthouse before you watched would necessarily help either as for aspects of the film, you will feel as lost and confused as Robert Patterson’s Thomas Howard does. This is a film more concerned with how it makes you feel and building atmosphere rather than telling a coherent story, which is not a criticism.
The atmosphere it is building is dread. Director Robert Eggers, who directed the equally as unnerving The Witch, starts this tense feeling very subtly. He uses isolation and a feeling of unease, as Patterson’s green Lighthouse Keeper learns the ropes from a manic Willem Defoe. From being told never to go to the Light of the Lighthouse, having weird experiences with seagulls and being exposed to Defoe’s flatulence, the movie leaves you feeling confused but engrossed by the proceedings.
Eggers uses the location, both the Lighthouse itself and also the isolated island it stands upon, to feed into that dread. The black-and-white makes the whole experience for the two men seem dreary and desperate. The cold, cloud-filled skies and the stormy weather build their isolation and you can feel their cold as they slowly succumb to whatever is happening at The Lighthouse.
Those events are certainly placed in the horror category but Eggers is not concerned with making the audience jump from their seats. Its the uncomfortable feeling as you watch Defoe start to lose his mind, or maybe Patterson, or maybe both. You are desperate for a “happy ending” or at least some sort of resolution to the events, but it is clear this is not going to happen.
The film relies so much on the central performances as they hold the screen almost exclusively. Patterson is perfect as the quiet, fraught new keeper who isn’t in it for the love but purely the money, and is in over his head. Defoe is incredible though and gives a career high performance, transforming into the ragged, Sea Captain who is intoxicated with the Lighthouse light and the sea itself. He is all at once terrifying but exciting to watch.
This is a film more concerned with the atmosphere and terror it is building and to that end, the more the characters lose their minds, the more confusing and abstract the film seems to become. The last twenty minutes offers no guidance for the audience and you could argue is “up for interpretation.” Others will just find it infuriatingly opaque and confusing, becoming far too bizarre and strange to follow as closely as the first three quarters of the movie allowed you to do.
Overall, The Lighthouse is another example of this new wave of atmospheric horror. It builds a sense of dread and is more concerned with unnerving the audience rather than making them jump from their seats. This means it can be an uncomfortable and tense experience but always an engrossing one and you get sucked-in by the two great performances; with Defoe stealing the movie. It is just a shame that the last twenty minutes undoes this slightly by being so downright bizarre and too difficult to grasp a hold of.
Rating – 4
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