Mon. Aug 10th, 2020

Cannes Review: ‘The Lighthouse’ Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson go toe to toe in Robert Eggers’ impeccably crafted new film

(Courtesy of The Cannes Film Festival)

Robert Eggers follows up The Witch by crafting The Lighthouse, a sublimely nightmarish tale about madness and solitude

Few thrillers will draw you in and hypnotize you as much as Robert Eggers’ new film, The Lighthouse. Shot in 35mm black and white and in the classic Academy ratio, it features only two characters wrestling with loneliness on a deserted island; a stunning descent into madness tale and a visual feast for the eyes.

Ephraim Winslow (a never better Robert Pattinson) is a young man who takes a job as an assistant to an old lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake (a haunting Willem Dafoe). The two men are tasked with keeping up with storms, tough work and complete isolation. The mission is four-weeks long, and Winslow has to learn the essentials of the job soon to make it through the month. But what starts as a month-long mission soon turns into a true nightmare: the men never leave the island and the nightmare grows wilder and fiercer as days go by. Alcohol is their only companion, and the more they drink, the more they lose their minds.

There’s one secret though: the light lantern room at the very top of the lighthouse. Wake forbids Winslow from ever accessing it and guards the keys with his life. There is something hypnotic and mysterious about that light – and Winslow sees Wake bathe himself in it every night. What could this light be? What powers does it possess? Does it heal, help forget or offer companionship? Does it arouse, creating wonders that transport its viewer to a different, more pleasurable world?

Eggers crafts a truly unique film that is incredibly crafted and impeccably atmospheric. It’s an experience that is completely absorbing, thanks to stunning black-and-white cinematography that makes the film a perfect companion piece to the 1960s noir films that have pulled in audiences for decades. Production design is also superb, taking audiences back to a time when isolated lighthouses were prisons in disguise for their workers: the cranks on their walls resembling the wrinkles on the workers faces, their isolated locations reminding workers of their loneliness and despair.

It is not a horror film per se; the horror is in the characters’ psyche, motivations and fears – but it works because Eggers never goes for cheap scares or conventional storytelling. At some point in the film, he forces audiences to re-think these two characters and he wonderfully plays with their dynamics throughout. And despite the thrill of watching two fantastic actors at the top of their game wrestle with each other, their loneliness and the past from which they are escaping, the film still carries beauty and heft. Ultimately, it explores what happens to humans when isolation creeps on their lives and they can no longer find someone to confide in, a safe haven where they can be themselves without being judged, a forgiving environment that helps them move forward without being dragged by their past.

These interesting questions are weaved in with a few fantasy elements that elevate the characters’ sensory and psychological experience – and the end result is a truly immersive nightmare – a visual and thematic experience that will surely delight arthouse audiences. Mainstream audiences may find the film too bleak to love, but this is strong, visionary work from Eggers who is cementing himself as one of the most interesting emerging directors working today.

Grade: A-

A24 will release The Lighthouse this fall.

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