The Lighthouse is Waiting for Godot.....but with lots more alcohol
by Chase Hutchinson
At the top, let it be known that this was among my most anticipated films of the year. Director Robert Egger's The VVitch was a genuinely stunning film that remains etched into my memory to this day. It was such a personal and intimate look at a family that was falling apart. The horror was ever-present and it was elevated by the sense of dread that inhabited the entire narrative. So while The Lighthouse is not as good as that stunning debut, it is still a bloody good followup. I will keep the description simple as the story is one that is at its best when it reveals the plot beats slowly and over time. Two grizzled and often conflicting men are tasked with keeping to a lighthouse in New England in the 1980s. The elder man, played by Dafoe, is in charge of the operation and gives the younger man, played by Pattinson, instructions about what needs to be done. The younger man, who we come to know as Winslow, does not always take kindly to the uneven distribution of labor and often harsh instructions he is given. The two men soon find themselves staying longer than was planned and having to grapple with their unexpected predicament.
Dafoe and Pattinson absolutely disappear into their roles which is saying quite a lot for actors that are well known for their other projects. Dafoe has essentially become a meme from all of his unique expressions. However, with this and a smaller role in The Florida Project, he has set himself apart in his newfound role as a strong supporting role that brings an edge to anything he is in. This is probably one of his more chaotic roles that he has sunken his teeth into but that serves the character incredibly well with all his rambling, drunken monologues that are riveting to behold. Pattinson is equally as good but is the one that the film relies on most. He manages to play both a guarded but also sympathetic character that is mysterious at times while also being brutally open at others. This may be an even more sad character than his standout role in Good Time but he is equally as good in this. Any previous memories of any of his past performances completely vanish and the result is a remarkable performance that is subtly brilliant. He is on the edge of madness and is barely holding it together which is brought to life brilliantly. Oh, he also plays drunk very well.
The film sets itself apart through unusual tone and presentation
The press for this movie has billed it as The Shining meets Moby Dick which not only is wrong, it undersells the experience. I understand where this is coming from, but I was more feeling like I was watching Waiting for Godot after the two men had had about 30 drinks. As the film goes on, there are a lot of sequences of drunken bonding between the two men that can turn on the drop of the hat. Some of these sequences are concluded with particularly humorous punchlines that gave the narrative a deceptively jovial tone. There are also a lot more surreal and often darkly absurdist elements that while I had a suspicion would be present, still caught me off guard when they would grasp the audience with its....erm....tentacles. That injects the story with suspense to spare even as the men spend most of their time, at least initially, keeping up with the basic day to day tasks with minimal incident. The phrase "slow burn" is thrown around a lot but this film is a slow burn that is attached to a powder keg that explodes in the latter part of the film. This shift doesn't feel out of place but it doesn't ramp up the stakes of the story quite drastically as it goes from slow character study to increasingly bizarre nightmare that quickly spirals out of control.
As for how the film is constructed, this is one of the few instances where I would say the narrow aspect ratio serves the story. It lends the atmosphere a heightened feeling of claustrophobia. Just as the characters are trapped in this narrow world, so too is our vision into their world kept narrow. It is still beautifully shot and many of the sequences are stunning to behold, even crossing into the deeply arresting imagery that etched itself into my mind just as the director's previous film did. What may set this entire film apart the most, however, is the sound design. My goodness, does this entire film sound alive. Every little sound is pitch-perfect and enhances the entire setting. Many times the sounds are diegetic (occurring within the world of the film) but then are enhanced in moments of tension. This type of technique sneaks up on you and left me in awe of these moments. The sound of a foghorn, the pattering of rain, or the repeated movement of a shovel. All of these sounds serve a purpose. Nothing is wasted and nothing is out of place. There is a score but that score blends in seamlessly with the rest of the sounds. It was an absolutely transporting element that I would recommend experiencing almost for that alone.
Akin to the main character, the film obscures many answers to the questions it poses
How long have we been on this rock? This is a question that is asked towards the end of the film and when I first heard it in the trailer, I didn't anticipate that there would be an answer nor does there have to be. Many films can keep most of the secrets that it hints at to itself. Not everything has to lay out all the cards on the table by the time the credits roll. In fact, The VVitch did this in many ways and it bettered the film for it. With The Lighthouse, however, I cannot say that the ending was befitting of the story in the same way that was. Too much feels invested and the ending left me thoroughly deflated. I will not say any specifics but it felt like there was something missing. I mean this partially literally: there feels like there were scenes cut to speed along towards an ending that feels rushed. This is unfortunate as the film up until this point had been patient as hell and willing to let things linger for as long as it could. The ending of this film almost feels like it wants to desperately get out of there as soon as possible and this undermines what it was going for in the final moments. This will obviously not take away from the experience and it still remains one of the best of the year. It just left on a shallow note for a film that seemed entirely willing to wallow in the darkest depths.