In 2015, a unique little film broke through the gates of horror mediocrity to deliver quite possibly one of the best psychological horrors of the New Tens: “The VVitch” (yes, it’s spelled like that, look it up). An impressive directorial debut from writer-director Robert Eggers, “The VVitch” combined the oppressive mental deterioration of isolated Puritan settlers with one-of-a-kind dedication to New England folklore and dialect.
While Eggers has at least three other projects in development, any follow up is anticipated, not only from horror aficianados and critics, but the general moviegoing audience. So, with all that hype, how does the even more ridigly arthouse “The Lighthouse” fare?
Not only does “The Lighthouse” blow “The VVitch” out of the frigid water, but it’s a mean contender for the year’s best and the decade’s best chiller, even against “Get Out.”
Yes, it’s that good. And part of why it’s so good is thanks to the only two members of the cast.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are at the top of their game here, each delivering performances that are career highlights. Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow is a stoic and reserved man, whose sanity is completely destroyed by the cruel daily routine he must work. Not helping is the odd mannerisms and gaslighting from the kooky and borderline senile “wickie,” Thomas Wake, played with mad aplomb by Dafoe.
With Wake, Dafoe sways between a crotchety, if calm tough-love mentor to Pattinson’s Winslow to a full-blown ham, whose scene chewing threatens to not only devour the tiny isle they live on, but to leap from the screen and take a chunk out of the seats in the front row of the theater.
The chemistry these two share is incredible, thanks in equal part to acting duo of Pattinson and Dafoe and the writing pair of Eggers with his brother Mark. The two lighthouse keepers play off each other incredibly well, beginning as distant and borderline indifferent to each other, then seesawing between furious resentment and deranged camaraderie.
I really believed that these two could go from hating each to best friends and back again in the space of a single scene, if not a single take, both men whose profession bounds them to someone they cannot stand: each other. And yet, despite the specter of violence that threatens to descend upon each other, the film is gut-bustingly funny.
A film that minutely accounts the terrifying decline of two men’s mental health is also quite possibly the funniest of the year. That same nervous energy between Winslow and Wake translates into comedically pathetic men getting into petty squabbles: Winslow who tells off Wake for not only his behavior, but his gas problems and sub-par cooking. That remark about his cooking, by the way, gets a nearly two-minute, single take diatribe from Wake, where Dafoe basically calls down the wrath of every Poseidon and God upon this poor man for insulting how he prepares a lobster.
It is the first time I’ve laughed at a trail of fart jokes since I was 11, and yet the movie never loses it’s tonal balance.
The reason why it’s taken me this long to bring up Eggers’s directing is because it’s rather subtle. He wisely lets the lead actors flex their considerable muscle, but he still is in top shape here. His supremely confident hand captures the beautifully bleak environment of the film, not only instilling familiarity within the audience, but knowing how to assist in framing the two characters.
His mastery is seen even in some of the smaller establishing shots, which reminded me greatly of those old monster flicks from the Universal horror cycle that lasted from the 1930s to the early 1950s. It’s hard to describe, but this film and those share this “glow,” this staging, and way of setting the mood. Thanks to Eggers, “The Lighthouse” is stunning and engrossing in all it’s oppressive glory.
There’s barely anything really that I could really critique with the movie. The film is so solidly arthouse and deliberately antiquated, so there is the issue of it diving into pretentiousness, though I felt it successfully did not fall into that hole.
Plus, there are two certain sexual scenes that, with one of them being an incredibly shocking and disturbing (no assault is committed), do progress the themes of isolation and madness. That being said, they may be turn offs and I could see why. Anything else at this point would honestly be nitpicking on my end.
“The Lighthouse” is the best horror film of 2019, even against movies like Jordan Peele’s “Us,” Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” and the Guillermo del Toro-produced “Scary Stories.” It’s an unforgettable descent into insanity, a prime example of the kind of mastery I want to see more of in theaters and quite possibly the apotheosis of depicting mental deterioration that’s usually associated with cosmic horror.
This film is a masterpiece and I cannot possibly overemphasize how rare films like this are, like last year’s “Suspiria,” is proof that arthouse belongs in horror and vice versa.
My rating: 5/5
Featured Image: Courtesy A24