REVIEW: A24’s been a good studio for star Robert Pattinson and director Robert Eggers. For Pattinson, his two A24 films, GOOD TIME and HIGH LIFE arguably won him the big prize, with him cast in THE BATMAN reportedly on the strength of those two performances. As for Eggers, THE WITCH put him on the map as one of the masters of the new “arthouse horror” genre that’s helped make the studio the prestige outfit for genre filmmaking.
THE LIGHTHOUSE should keep their solid run with A24 going strong, although like THE WITCH, expect this to be another one of those movies that pleases critics but sharply divides horror fans. In fact, in many ways, THE LIGHTHOUSE isn’t horror at all, although there’s enough gore and suspense to make it classifiable in that genre. Rather, the horror here is psychological as we watch our hero, Robert Pattinson’s apprentice lighthouse keeper, slowly go mad dealing with both the isolation of his new job and an unpredictable boss, Willem Dafoe’s salty old sea dog.
Eggers has a unique style, and if anything this is even bolder in terms of its look than his last film, opting not only for the now trendy 1:33:1 aspect ratio, but also crisp 35mm black and white photography, which makes it plays out like a lost Val Lewton film from the forties, albeit laced with a heavy dose of early David Lynch.
The only two on-screen for almost the entirety of the film, Pattinson and Dafoe give incredible performances. Dafoe seems to be having a ball as the constantly farting, over-the-hill lighthouse keeper, spouting off the old-timey dialogue with aplomb. If you ever wondered what Willem Dafoe might have been like as Long John Silver, you’ll get your answer here.
In the end though, this is Pattinson’s show, with his mysterious apprentice the protagonist, albeit a mysterious one whose motivations are never quite clear. We follow him as he goes about the routine grunt work of running a lighthouse, with Dafoe’s older watchman greedily hogging the one fun job, manning the actual light. He’s stuck with dirty jobs, such as emptying the piss pots, with this driving home the notion of just how filthy such a job would have been two hundred or so years ago.
We follow him as anger and desperation start to sink in and he begins to have fantasies of mermaids washed up on the shore for him to have graphic sex with while following him as he tries to pass the time. We see him do whatever he can to alleviate the monotony. The unmooring of his psyche takes a while to sink in, with a good hour or so passing before THE LIGHTHOUSE starts to ratchet up the tension. While there’s no image as instantly iconic as Black Phillip, there is a pretty bad seagull here that continues Egger’s trend of animals serving as harbingers of doom. When Pattinson starts to go crazy, you believe it and this is yet another strong performance for the former teen idol, who’s had one of the most impressive career second acts on record.
Based on the reaction here at TIFF (which seems to be slightly cooler than it was at Cannes), THE LIGHTHOUSE will not be for everyone, with the emphasis on arthouse over horror. If you’re willing to have a little patience though, you’ll be rewarded with a deeply unsettling tale of madness, which boasts some truly impressive imagery and two pretty perfect performances. I can see this one becoming a cult item, although it’s maybe too “out there’ to catch on in the way something like THE WITCH did.