Descent Into Madness
The Lighthouse is uncomfortable, unnerving and a stunning achievement in psychological horror. Resting solely on the masterful performances of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse is a methodically paced descent into madness that plays on its unsettling atmosphere right the way through the film. Shot entirely in black and white and with some deliberately artistic long shots, A24 help produce one of the best films of 2019.
Much like Cube and 12 Angry Men before it, The Lighthouse relies solely on a single location and instead plays out as a character-driven thriller. Set in 1890 on a remote New England island, Ephraim Winslow begins a four-week stint as a lighthouse keeper alongside the overbearing, bossy Thomas Wake. With an exhausting, never-ending schedule of chores and a growing sense of lunacy in the air, Ephrain slowly begins to lose grip on reality, hallucinating and struggling to keep his wits as the film goes on. All of this, combined with the sprinkling of the supernatural with a mermaid that may or may not exist, combines to create one of the more unique horrors to come out this year.
The script itself relies heavily on the performance of its two lead characters and both Pattinson and Dafoe absolutely deliver here. Dafoe has always walked that fine line of madness in his previous films but here he’s in a completely different class. His eyes are haunting, his mannerisms swing like a pendulum between rage and disappointment while his moments alone see fear creeping in. By comparison, Pattinson keeps pace and delivers his best performance to date, spinning down into a maniacal rage across the 100 minute run-time. Seeing both of these characters grow and evolve as the film progresses is absolutely mesmerizing and makes this a film hard to take your eyes off.
Stylistically, there’s a deliberate use of long shots and static cameras here that play on the mundanity of the tasks at hand early on. There’s a deliciously twisted use of seagulls here too, which symbolically refers to the survival aspect of the characters. The constant, growing anger from this sea-bird certainly acts as foreshadowing for what follows in the plot. The score is unsettling and oftentimes this overlaps with the dialogue too, drowning out crazed bouts of laughter with the minor strings or rumbling horns that dominate large stretches of the film.
In its most simplistic form, The Lighthouse is a cautionary tale about cabin fever and dominance. It’s an incredibly artistic picture and the unsettling, hallucinatory imagery, combined with masterful acting, is enough to push this into psychological thriller territory rather than an outright horror. Although the middle of the film does tend to meander on a little too long, the third act more than makes up for this as everything crescendos into a messy and thrilling ending. Both lead actors will undoubtedly receive best actor nods for their efforts here and massive props to both men; The Lighthouse is a fantastic film and easily one of the best of 2019.