The Lighthouse—emphatically the best movie of the year featuring cabin fever, a delirious Willem Dafoe, and human-mermaid coitus—is writer-director Robert Eggers’s first film since 2016’s The Witch. Co-written with Eggers’s brother Max, The Lighthouse is a flawed-but-memorable follow-up to a horror genre masterpiece.
Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a former lumberjack seeking a change in career, accepts a position as a wickie, or lighthouse keeper. Winslow embarks on a four-week shift with fellow keeper Wake (Willem Dafoe) at a small lighthouse on a remote Northeastern island. Wake, a grizzled drunkard and the long-time lightkeeper at the lighthouse, informs Winslow that his previous wickie went mad before dying. Wake’s rambling and superstitious philosophizing—including a warning that seagulls are reincarnated sailors and thus killing them is bad luck—grates on Winslow.
The two wickies, adversarial from the start, trade barbs and gawk at one another whenever they share a space. Wake further instigates the mutual disdain by increasing Winslow’s workload. Winslow is forced to lug lamp oil up the lighthouse’s interminable staircase and chauffeur and shovel wheelbarrow loads of coal around the island. With both wickies operating on a knife’s edge, Winslow does the unthinkable, killing a leering, vociferous seagull against Wake’s wishes.
Featuring only Pattinson and Dafoe trapped on a claustrophobic isle for the vast majority of its 110-minute runtime, The Lighthouse simulates the feeling of a bottle episode of television. You may begin to go mad right alongside its two eccentric, kooky, babbling main characters. This is a testament to Pattinson’s grumpy, suspicious newcomer, and, to a slightly greater degree, Dafoe’s shabby wickie and accompanying pirate voice.
Although Pattinson’s Northeastern accent rises and falls like the tide, Dafoe’s mad sailor is unwavering. Wake repeatedly chastises Winslow with a rapturous, lyrical dialog, equal parts ridiculous and wonderful. Dafoe’s character work on Wake plays into the Eggers’ writing; Dafoe is thunderous-yet-restrained, an ideal match for the script’s nautical Shakespeare.
As with Ari Aster’s Midsommar, The Lighthouse unabashedly mixes horror with comedy. (The comparisons between Eggers and Aster don’t stop there, either. Both directors are known for work in the horror genre, released their sophomoric film in 2019, and have paired with studio A24 twice.) While Midsommar utilized farcical, absurdist humor, The Lighthouse relies on discomfort, idiosyncrasy, and body humor. These tactics offer varying results depending on the audience, but I can safely say The Lighthouse contained more farts than expected or needed.
The Lighthouse’s greatest strength is perhaps its most glaring flaw. Because its two leads are descending into madness, gaslighting one another, discovering supernatural creatures, or all of the above, the puzzle pieces don’t snap into place as they should. This raises the possibility of one or more unreliable narrators, but regardless of whose side you take, the plot never quite fits together as a single, cohesive idea. The big-picture story may then reflect the nature of insanity or a Rashomon-style battle of perspective, but this is never clearly articulated.
Although the production design and cinematography are stunning, transforming an airport hangar into a drizzly, muddy, black-and-white lighthouse, the island’s layout is murky. The geography of the lighthouse and its lodging was cause for confusion in the movie’s climactic scenes, taking away from the action on screen.
Fans of The Witch will recognize the one-eyed seagull as The Lighthouse’s own ominous animal, a worthy equal of the infamous Black Phillip. Eggers is drawn to the folklore and mythology, adding mystique and essential world-building to an otherwise small, isolated rock in the bitter Atlantic. Eggers’s cinematic two-hander is an admirable successor to a 2016 classic.