How long can two men be stuck with each other on an isolated island without killing each other and/or go insane? That is the question The Lighthouse posits in what is one of the more bizarre movies over the last few years.
Thomas (Willem Dafoe) is a lighthouse keeper on an island somewhere off the coast of New England, where he is joined by his new assistant, Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Thomas is a crusty keeper, salty, and adamantly insists on things being done his way. Only he is allowed to tend to the light itself.
Winslow is scheduled to spend four weeks on the island, and as a simmering mutual disdain is stoked by heavy drinking, the assistant slowly starts losing grip of reality. That is if he actually had a shred of sanity when he arrived on the island.
The Lighthouse is disorienting – the one thing an actual lighthouse is not supposed to be. Winslow starts seeing visions of merfolk, and time starts losing meaning. As he is berated and bullied by Thomas, things get – no pun intended – foggy. How long has Winslow actually been on the island? Who is out to get whom? And what makes the light so special that Thomas allows no-one near it?
It’s a strange-looking movie, too, yet gorgeous to look at; well deserved of its Academy Award nomination for best cinematography. It is filmed in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio – practically square – and 35 m.m. black and white looks appropriately eighteen-nineteens.
Too, the wind and rhythmic fog horns sound haunting, with a dull emptiness that suggests the two men stuck in a purgatory. Religion is a general theme that flows through the movie – Winslow even parallels Prometheus, the Greek titan who stole fire from the gods.
Small details are strewn throughout the dialogue, giving hints of what may or may be happening, and echoes of them can often be seen in the background. The Lighthouse is a painstakingly detailed movie.
Dafoe and Pattinson both knock it out of the park with their performances, too. They are for all intents and purposes the only actors on screen – with apologies to the mermaid – and both display an intensity that makes every scene just a little uncomfortable to watch. Their respective beard and mustache are pretty much salty characters in themselves.
It’s a complex and disorienting watch, The Lighthouse, yet constantly entertaining. I might not quite grasp what’s going on all the time, but that’s part of what makes it fascinating. It’s a well-balanced movie.
2019 was a good year for movies, and The Lighthouse ranks right up there with the best of them.