Cannes Film Review: Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in ‘The Lighthouse’

In the 1890s, a pair of lighthouse keepers fight the elements, the spirits, and each other in Robert Eggers' darkly exciting follow-up to 'The Witch.'

Robert Eggers
Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman.

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7984734/

The Lighthouse,” the second feature directed by Robert Eggers (“The Witch”), is a gripping and turbulent drama that draws on a number of influences, though it merges them into its own fluky gothic historical ominoso art-thriller thing. Set in the 1890s, and suffused with foghorns and epic gusts of wind, as well as a powerfully antiquated sense of myth and legend, the movie is shot in shimmeringly austere black-and-white, with a radically old-fashioned 1.19:1 aspect ratio (a nearly perfect square, like that of an early sound film). That lends everything that happens a weird immersive clarity. The entire film is set on a desolate island of jagged black rock, where a gnarly old sea dog, played by Willem Dafoe, declaiming his lines like Captain Ahab on a bender, is tending the lighthouse there for four weeks along with his new assistant, played with surly reticence — and then an aggression that bursts out of him like a demon — by Robert Pattinson.

They’re the only characters in the movie (unless you count a flirtatious mermaid siren, played by Valeriia Karaman, who flashes by in sequences that feel like dreams), but that doesn’t mean this is any sort of minimalist drama. As a filmmaker, Eggers is a maximalist — he stages “The Lighthouse” as a fetishistically authentic tale of grueling conditions, drunken meals by lone candlelight, and merciless physical labor, though the film is also a kind of ghost story (the ghosts, too, may be mere figments; or not). It’s also a combative two-hander in which the men, vying for power and camaraderie, chat and joke and jostle and take the piss and go at each other as if they were characters written by Sam Shepard in a sea-shanty frame of mind.

“The Lighthouse,” made with extraordinary skill, is a movie you can’t pigeonhole, and that’s part of its appeal (though that could also make it a bit of a marketing challenge). Yet even if you’ve never seen “The Witch,” you may feel in your bones that you’re watching a supernatural shocker. Dafoe and Pattinson, playing these gruff period yokels, are fascinating enough to fixate our attention, but the movie also has its quota of megaplex portents: an obstreperous seagull that may be a living spirit, a glimpse of Neptunian tentacles, the Dafoe character’s nearly mystical attitude toward the lighthouse booth itself, with its luminous rotating beacon of glass. What, exactly, is up there? And what’s going down, really, between the two men? Are we seeing a slice of survival, a horror film, or a study in slow-brewing mutual insanity? How about all of the above?

Both actors are sensational (and they work together like one), but in terms of sheer showboating power it’s Dafoe’s movie. He plays Thomas Wake, the aging “wickie,” as a knowing piece of kitsch — a crusty, bearded, limping old seaman with his pipe held upside-down and a brogue marinated in gin. Yet Dafoe digs so deep into this walking cliché that he transforms him, before our eyes, into an intricate and layered character.

Thomas is supposed to be training Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), a drifter looking to make enough money to settle down, in the art of lighthouse keeping. But Thomas, basically, wants to be obeyed, and he treats Ephraim as his galley slave. He’s a petty tyrant whose previous assistant went crazy, and Dafoe has a ripe blast playing around with his dialogue. Eggers wrote the script with his brother, Max Eggers, basing the film’s eccentric salty-dog literacy on journals from the period, passages out of Melville, and writings by the New England novelist and poet Sarah Orne Jewett. The result is that Dafoe plays Thomas like a yob written by Shakespeare (“God who hear’st the surges roll, deign to save a suppliant soul”). His entire backstory consists of one line of dialogue, which Dafoe turns into a saddened haiku: “Thirteen Christmases at sea. Little ones at home. She never forgave it.” Supernatural or not, the real demon that haunts “The Lighthouse” is the ghost of male loneliness.

As Ephraim, Pattinson gives an intensely physical performance, lugging around barrels of oil and shoveling coal, dangling from a treacherous pulley as he whitewashes the lighthouse’s tall brick exterior (the entire structure was built for the film, though you’d swear it’s an actual lighthouse that’s been around for 150 years). He also masturbates to an ivory mermaid figurine. Pattinson can be a recessive actor, and for a while here, in his droopy mustache, he seems to be playing one more low-key Pattinson drone. But the way “The Lighthouse” works, Willem Dafoe’s performance is a kind of taunt, and Pattinson, on the receiving end of it, rises to the occasion — when he spits out a speech about how sick he is of listening to the old man, it’s the most ferocious acting of Pattinson’s career. (Well, except for the scene where Ephraim takes out his rage on that seagull.) As the movie goes on, his eyes begin to burn in their sockets.

At a certain point, the two men run out of booze and start drinking kerosene, and they descend into a dance of madness. Yet even then, their underlying duel continues. The movie teases us to expect a last-act revelation, and it doesn’t quite arrive as scheduled. “The Lighthouse” never stops toying with our expectations, and that makes it a tough one to call commercially. Can it connect with a mass audience? Maybe not as smoothly as “The Witch” did. Yet the movie, building on “The Witch,” proves that Robert Eggers possesses something more than impeccable genre skill. He has the ability to lock you into the fever of what’s happening onscreen.

Popular on Variety

Cannes Film Review: Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in 'The Lighthouse'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight), May 19, 2019. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production: An A24 release of an A24, New Regency, RT Features production. Producers: Youree Henley, Lourenço Sant’ Anna, Rodrigo Teixeira, Jay Van Hoy. Executive producers: Arnon Milchan, Yariv Milchan, Michael Schaefer, Josh Peters, Isaac Ericson, Sophie Mas, Caito Oritz, Rodrigo Gutierrez, Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus.

Crew: Director: Robert Eggers. Screenplay: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers. Camera (color, widescreen): Jarin Blaschke. Editor: Louise Ford. Music: Mark Korven.

With: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman.

More Film

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame' Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' In announcing [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame' Locarno Film Review: [...]

  • Cat in the Wall Movie Sarajevo

    Sarajevo Film Festival Builds Bridges Through Art

    Rising from the rubble of the Bosnian War to become one of Southeastern Europe’s leading film and TV industry events, the Sarajevo Film Festival has plenty to celebrate as it marks its 25th edition this year. More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame' Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' The festival was established in 1995 during [...]

  • 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band

    Film Review: 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas'

    Settling in to watch “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” you may have a burning question that applies to almost no other rock documentary, and that is: Who, exactly, are these guys? The ones behind the beards? More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame' Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' If you’re old enough, [...]

  • Patricia Louisiana Knop Dead: Screenwriter Was

    Screenwriter Patricia Louisianna Knop Dies at 78

    Screenwriter Patricia Louisianna Knop, who collaborated with her producer-director husband Zalman King on erotically-charged films of the late 1980s and 1990s including “Siesta” and “9 1/2 Weeks,” died Aug. 7 in Santa Monica after a lengthy illness. More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame' Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' “9 1/2 Weeks,” starring Mickey Rourke [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content