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TIFF 2019 Review: Robert Egger's hypnotic 'The Lighthouse' gives off intoxicating glow

Courtesy of A24


One might watch something like “The Lighthouse” and wonder what kind of film they just stumbled into. Is it a dark comedy? An old-fashion black and white throwback? Or a weird cabin fever style horror thriller where Robert Pattinson really hates seagulls?

Whichever the case, Robert Eggers daunting and near hypnotic “The Lighthouse” is a character study of the mind and the body that’s equal parts enjoyable and deranged. Shot on glistening 35mm film, and presented in pristine black and white, Egger’s sophomore follow-up to “The Witch” is an experience unto itself, where it’s hard to tell the difference between reality and fiction. 

Most of the “The Lighthouse” runs like it could be suited for a staged production, and considering Eggers enlisted the classically trained Willem Dafoe and upcoming bat crusader Robert Pattinson as his muses for this nifty theatrical experiment, the film beams with a vibe of authenticity. 

Dafoe - rocking a real Captain Ahab accent compete with a bum leg and scruffy beard - is veteran lighthouse keeper Thomas, whose just welcomed his new lackey, Ephraim (Pattison), to the isolated and murky coast of Maine for four weeks of hard solitary work. By day, the sober Thomas barks belittling orders about cleaning up the deck and scrubbing the floors, but in the evening transitions into a silly and flatulence induced drunk. Whereas Ephraim, a quiet gentleman holding back a typhoon of anger, doesn’t take too kindly to his new employer, and the conflict, anguish, and torment slowly start to boil. 

There’s quite a bit to unpack in terms of blurring the line between madness and danger, and part of that is aided by a smaller aspect ratio to help amplify the isolation, and the black and white aesthetic that harks back to an old generation of filmmaking. It’s also a decision that works well with the single-set claustrophobic environment Eggers creates, proving the filmmaker yet again knows how to craft a solid nightmare about the hell of other people. 

But aside from a flock of seagulls or a seductive mermaid who can send a shiver or two down your spine, “The Lighthouse” trots a familiar dark and gloomy path that could’ve been borrowed from other ambitious genre thrillers. Where I’d argue “The Lighthouse” works more like a creepy black comedy (is there any other kind?) which would give the film some interesting marketing power (because I have a feeling general audiences won’t be fans of Egger’s style of filmmaking). 

Still, at least for this critic, Eggers has crafted a neat film that’s booming with the most chilling score of the year from composer Mark Korven who blends and synthesizes sirens, seagull chirps, and machinery into a perfect storm of unsettling and tension filled chaos. The same can be said of Dafoe and Pattinson who excel in cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s award worthy framing. After all, this is a primo showcase for the two actors who volley pages of dialogue back and forth like a well plotted chess match, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of these two scallywags in the awards conversation later this year. 

No question, “The Lighthouse” will be an endurance test for the audience strapped in for the ride, yet you can’t argue with Egger’s meticulous attention to detail and strategic plotting that pays off in an demented climax that’ll give certain audience members the intoxicating aftertaste of a gothic sensation, while others could walk away in frustration. 

That’s exactly how Eggers wants it. 

Grade: B+

“The Lighthouse” will be released in theaters by A24 on October 18th and was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival

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