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MOVIES: The Lighthouse (LFF 2019) - Review

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The Witch is one of the best, if not the best horror films of the decade so far and as a debut film it left Robert Eggers with a tough task to follow, especially in the wake of what has mostly been an excellent sophomore year for breakout horror directors with Ari Aster and Jordan Peele both continuing fine form with their follow-ups to Hereditary and Get Out, Midsommar and Us respectively, leaving an impact on the horror genre. But The Lighthouse is possibly better than most of the films mentioned above, or at least on par with them, leaving a distinctively clear impression that benefits the most from the stellar acting by its two leads, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.

Shot in black and white and using historical texts related to lighthouse keepers as sources of inspiration for its well-researched setting, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse feels like a movie that wouldn’t look out of place if it were made in the 1920s or 1930s, which makes sense beyond just its setting in 1980s America, given that his next project is a take on the classic Nosferatu film. Here, the director nails the atmosphere to create a sense of unease and weariness, beautifully shot by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke in black and white. Yet for all the qualities of the script – which is written by both Robert and Max Eggers – it would not be as good as it was without the sheer talent of its lead actors, who really make or break a project like this when it consists of nothing more than two men on an island, where the entirety of the film takes place, stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a storm with only the sea, which turns increasingly stormy by the second, and the mysterious lighthouse to keep them company.

Dafoe’s grisly, world-weary lighthouse keeper feels like a character tailor made for the actor. He makes Thomas Wake’s very presence and rule-abiding nature cast a distinctive impression over Pattinson’s lighthouse-keeper in training, Ephraim Winslow, as the back and forth between the two combined with the strict rules and oversight of Wake eventually forces Winslow to come to terms with who he is as a person, and the longer he is spent away from other people the more civilisation's high standards begin to break down. Winslow himself has a desire to prove himself but is brash, with Pattinson putting a near career best performance in The Lighthouse. He more than rivals Dafoe coming close to bettering him, and in a movie with such strong lead actors like this one, they can be relied upon to make any dialogue, no matter what it is – even when one is complaining about the other’s farting – sound believable, authentic and genuine.

The Lighthouse manages to capture the sense of loneliness and how it can overwhelm someone, particularly when they find themselves left adrift for too long in the wilderness. It’s not the most densely plotted film allowing for an in-depth and intense study of how violence factors into people’s behaviour in these situations when they’re alone without rules or oversight to keep them occupied, and the film makes the maximum usage out of its one-location setting, doubling down on its old-school feel by opting for a 1.19:1 aspect ratio setting. These characters feel ripped from the pages of Moby Dick, and indeed, Dafoe himself is not far removed from Captain Ahab, but a Captain Ahab turned up to eleven, induced on Shakespearean dialogue.

Despite all critical acclaim that the film has received so far it is hard to imagine The Lighthouse earning the same mass appeal that The Witch had to offer but those willing to watch this film with an open mind - and ideally, those going in knowing as little as possible - will find themselves met with one of the best offerings of the year so far, and something that shows Robert Eggers is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to directors who are currently working, especially as his next project has the potential to make it three for three. And if you need a reminder about how Robert Pattinson is likewise, one of the best actors of his generation, ahead of Matt Reeves' upcoming take on Batman, The Lighthouse is an excellent example of what he is capable of.

The Lighthouse is airing at the London Film Festival in October and you can watch a trailer for the film here.

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