Have you seen enough hentai to know where this is going?
Off the coast of New England in the 1890s, two men arrive for a four-week watch at an isolated island lighthouse. The old man (Willem Dafoe) wastes no time in letting the younger man (Robert Pattinson) know who’s in charge, tasking the lad with upkeep while taking the promised “shared duty” of light-keeping entirely for himself. An uneasy truce keeps the strangers working together until a friendship forms, one that becomes tested as time wears on toward the end of their stint. From the point of view of the younger man, the island and lighthouse is full of strangeness — maybe even in the old man, too — or is the strangeness only inside of himself?
Mostly known for production design, Robert Eggers follows up his feature directorial debut The Witch (or The VVitch because it’s weirder) with this de-saturated throwback, looking more like a lost horror film restored from the 1940s than a modern thriller. With a mono soundtrack and an old-timey aspect ratio, the director is all-in for this storm-ridden genre piece. Aside from glimpses of a mermaid played by Valeriia Karaman, this is a two-man show trying to out true-grit one another with more God-fearing superstitions than you can shake a bottle of rum at. Can Eggers instill the same kind of dread and doom to a Lovecraft-inspired gothic horror that he gave to Pilgrim-era witches?
With dimly lit sets and back-lighting over a gray-shaded palette, The Lighthouse makes the most of its setting, from roiling seas to obscuring mists; even the foghorn sounds like the distant roar of some Great Old One instead of a man-made warning. As the story switches gears from hints of oddities to full-on madness, facts become scarce as everything is called into question but not any king of revealing way. Like stereotypical year-end awards contenders, too much is left open to interpretation to solidify the production into a satisfying conclusion. The film’s need to keep the mystery mysterious — no matter the story cost — sinks it for casual and genre audiences alike.
Where The Witch moved consistently toward a conclusion that built upon all the happenings before, The Lighthouse flirts with undoing previous reveals with every step forward. Without a solitary point of reference, the descent into true madness is the audience wondering what’s going on or if they missed something… sometimes done intentionally to foster repeat viewings: “if you’ve only seen it once, you haven’t seen it all!” It’s clearly a fish tale seasoned with a liberal sprinkling of Lovecraft and a healthy drought of nautical mythology, but the story’s refusal to commit to any revealing detail undoes the goodwill, leaving a thick atmosphere without tangible meaning while blaming “madness” for lacking cohesion.
There are even a few inspirations from The Shining here, particularly invoking Stanley Kubrick’s focus upon Jack’s increasing madness. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft know there are only three endings for protagonists: horrible death, terrible madness, or worse both. While The Lighthouse delivers on that, it suffers from a lack of a singular thread to string everything through and hold it all together. Even Thomasin wouldn’t know what to do… even with help.
The Lighthouse is rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, some language, and never having read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Two skull recommendation out of four
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