Cannes 2019

Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse

On Film / The Daily — May 21, 2019
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse (2019)

An outburst of giddy tweets immediately following Sunday night’s premiere of The Lighthouse has resulted in some of the longest lines for repeat screenings seen in Cannes in recent memory. Reviews of the Directors’ Fortnight entry have been some of the best for any film at the festival this year, and so far, the best of the best is Jessica Kiang’s for the Playlist. “So who knew,” she asks, “that Edgar Allan Poe and Man of Aran early cinema pioneer Robert Flaherty threw a Herman Melville-themed party for Ernest Hemingway which, under the influence of bathtub gin and barometric anomaly (and a late appearance by Samuel Beckett), became so raucous it angered the Greek Gods who visited mythically grotesque punishments on its revelers, gone blind with masculine rage and insane with isolation and bad hooch? Thankfully, director Robert Eggers, of The Witch infamy, was on hand to document the proceedings.”

It’s the 1890s, and Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe), a craggy former seaman, and ex-logger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) emerge from a soupy fog to take on a four-week stint manning a lighthouse jutting up from an isolated rock off the coast of Nova Scotia. Wake’s in charge and jealously guards the light itself, refusing to let Winslow anywhere near it. As the junior officer, it’s left to Winslow to scrub the cabin, empty buckets of excrement, and stoke the boiler. The Lighthouse is, as Variety’s Owen Gleiberman describes it, “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 deeply researched screenplay written by Eggers and his brother Max is “packed with antique nautical jargon,” observes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, “and their two actors chomp away on it with zeal.” Dafoe, notes Michael Leader at Little White Lies, “revels in delivering the knotty vernacular, salty banter and drunken sea-dog stories, and he’s on top form as the energy undulates across a scene from quiet repose to roof-raising frenzy. Pattinson, adding yet another killer credit to his enviable actor’s CV, more than holds his own as a man beaten down by his surroundings and his situation, and undone by isolation, desire, and paranoia.”

At the Notebook, Leonardo Goi zeroes in on Eggers’s use of 35 mm orthochromatic film stock. “An early standard in filmmaking eventually replaced for its tendency to make skin tones too dark,” he explains, “it does wonders to capture the hues of candlelit dinner conversations, the mud and dirt covering the pair’s faces, turning the scarcely furbished interiors into nightmarish ink drawings. The few moments cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s camera ventures outside the confines of the dim-lit interiors to capture a misty, aluminum sky, the light feels almost unbearably bright.” At the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor notes that the boxy Academy ratio (1.37:1) “accentuates the style of Eggers’s balanced compositions while adding to the men’s increasing claustrophobia and insanity . . . Blaschke’s work is morbidly complimented by Mark Korven’s score, a mix of low strings and menacing, repetitious fog horns.”

Granting that there’s “a great deal of ostentatious cinematic technique, much of it an obvious homage to silent cinema,” Richard Porton, writing at the Daily Beast, finds that, compared to The Witch, The Lighthouse is “both less terrifying and more calculated in its effects, especially Eggers’s determination to toy with our expectations of what defines a contemporary horror movie.” The film strikes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson as “a flurry of auteur onanism that alternately amuses and annoys” and “an awfully trying experience to end with such a sneering shrug of the shoulders.”

But most would agree with Ben Kenigsberg, who argues at RogerEbert.com that Eggers “hasn’t simply avoided the ‘sophomore jinx’—he’s distilled the strengths of The Witch into something even more singular and strange.” And to circle back to Jessica Kiang: “Good films feel timeless,” she writes, “like they will always endure. But great ones feel eternal, like they’ve always been there.”

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