×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.'

Director:
Robert Eggers
With:
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.

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

  • Judi Dench

    Judi Dench Says Works by Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey Should Be Respected

    Veteran British star Judi Dench has said that the work produced by Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey should be separated from the offenses they are alleged to have committed. Both Weinstein and Spacey face charges of sexual assault in the U.S., which they deny, and have been investigated in other jurisdictions as well, including Britain. [...]

  • Karlovy Vary Honorees

    Karlovy Vary Fetes Julianne Moore, Patricia Clarkson, Vladimir Smutny

    The Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival Honorees More Reviews Film Review: 'The Other Story' Film Review: 'Annabelle Comes Home' JULIANNE MOORE, Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema An actress, author and activist, Moore has long earned accolades on her diverse career path. The North Carolina native won a Daytime Emmy with her [...]

  • CLOSE QUARTERS – In Disney and

    Korea Box Office: ‘Toy Story 4,' ‘Aladdin’ Share Weekend

    Two Disney releases, “Toy Story 4” and “Aladdin” ruled the weekend box office in Korea. Opening on Thursday, “Toy Story 4” earned $8.54 million from 1.12 million admissions over its four opening days. The animated family adventure film accounted for 32% of the country’s total weekend box office. More Reviews Film Review: 'The Other Story' [...]

  • Lendita Zeqiraj Agas House Movie

    Karlovy Vary Embraces New Voices From the East

    When Karlovy Vary Film Festival’s East of the West competition opened to submissions from the Middle East two years ago, festival artistic director Karel Och noted it was “about time to abandon the political definition of the ‘East of the West’ countries,” long determined by the geographical boundaries hemming in the former Soviet bloc. More [...]

  • Let There Be Light Movie Marko

    Tough Competition in Spa Town Festival

    When the curtain rises June 28 on the 54th edition of the Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival, there will be a conspicuous absence among the 12 titles selected for the main competition: Czech directors. More Reviews Film Review: 'The Other Story' Film Review: 'Annabelle Comes Home' It’s just the second time this decade that the [...]

  • Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp Join Edgar

    Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp Join Edgar Wright’s ‘Last Night in Soho’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” has rounded out its cast, with veteran actors Diana Rigg and Terence Stamp among the stars signing on for the latest movie from the “Baby Driver” director. More Reviews Film Review: 'The Other Story' Film Review: 'Annabelle Comes Home' Stamp can currently be seen in Netflix hit “Murder Mystery” [...]

  • Zhang Zhao LeEco film

    Zhang Zhao, Chief of Le Chuang (Formerly Le Vision Pictures), Resigns

    Zhang Zhao, the chairman and CEO of Le Chuang Entertainment, formerly known as Le Vision Pictures, has resigned for “personal reasons,” the firm said.    More Reviews Film Review: 'The Other Story' Film Review: 'Annabelle Comes Home' Zhang’s resignation was announced in a statement posted to the firm’s official social media account Monday, which thanked [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content