Home » The Lighthouse review – Robert Egger’s Unnerving Masterpiece of Mythic Power | London Film Festival 2019

The Lighthouse review – Robert Egger’s Unnerving Masterpiece of Mythic Power | London Film Festival 2019

by Ben Rolph

In his follow-up to The Witch, Robert Eggers returns with a twist on the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a tale of two shackled-up Lighthouse keepers and their descent into madness. Almost Hitchcockian, Eggers’ presentation in his creation of characters, framing and composition all scream of a director in complete and utter control of his craft. The Lighthouse is a mythical gripping nightmare that may just be one of cinema’s best in a long time.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson give relentlessly passionate and stirringly psychotic performances, losing themselves in Eggers’ peculiar nightmare-induced Shakespearean mariner tale. Slowly calculated and controlled, the descent seen in the minds of the characters is fantastically reflected in the film’s scorching sound design, Hitchcockian visuals and drastic actions.


Lighthouse keeper Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe) takes on Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a job-seeker, seeking a decently payed job that leads him to the lighthouse off the American shore in the late 1890’s. Tom an ageing former sailor, he is in charge, he is the officer and has control over Ephraim and the lighthouse itself. Ephraim is tasked with the more mundane jobs including the gathering of wood and cleaning the floors. A tension is built with Tom’s more outgoing personality, the ground rules are layed and the descent slowly trickles until it explodes into action. With this tension, Ephraim eventually decides he is being neglected away from the light and becomes heavily suspicious in Tom’s behaviour and motivations. “Spill yer beans”, what is the truth? What is real? What is fake?

Eggers has nothing but two lighthouse keepers and a mermaid, The Lighthouse contains masterfully crafted character work that is unmatched in recent memory – the story is heavily influenced by Shakespeare, but most notably Coleridge and his poem, ‘The Rime of The Ancient Mariner’. In which the experiences of a ‘Ancient Mariner’ is shown, the mariner returns from a long sea voyage and recalls a tale of his story in how he shot an albatross and the constraint he felt for committing a moral and religious sin. Similarly, Pattinson’s Ephraim has an encounter with a seagull, Robert and Max Eggers’ script captures that poetic and mythical sense of which Coleridge once wrote. The seagull, like the albatross are symbols for innocence, if you destroy those who are innocent, what are ye?


The Lighthouse is frenziedly dark and utterly wild, Eggers is able to capture deeply disturbing imagery with his delicate use of symbolism and repetition, creating an explosive sense of danger. The erotic visions of Ephraim disorientate with a mysterious quality, with a recurring dark use of a washed-up mermaid that evokes a sheer horror, similar to that of Eggers’ work in The Witch. The isolation is perfectly paralleled in the direction, shooting in a box-like frame, the precision seen is unnervingly perfect.

Eventually, the loneliness and the annoyance of their isolation leads to a path of unnerving deranged madness. Willem Dafoe goes full on Shakespeare, with his blathering Mariner-like persona shining through all of Tom’s quirks. The breadth allowed is incredibly refreshing in what the actors can do, there are no rules and confinements in what they portray. Similarly, you will be left in a magical trance when you gaze upon Pattinson’s performance, he and Dafoe mesmerise beyond imagination.


The film is clearly surrealist and influenced by Hitchcock and German Expressionism, Eggers isn’t worried about grounding a realist story or any confinements in terms of genre. The meandering hands of The Lighthouse dip into all manor of categories, at times it’s unequivocally horrifying and intense, whilst farts have never been funnier. The shifting nature of Eggers’ careful hands show a real control, mirroring Hitchcockian techniques in the composing of shots, with all movement, framing and mise-en-scene having vital importance. Whether it be a spiraling staircase, the theatrical staging of mise-en-scene or actors, the composition and detail in creating subtext and meaning all scream Hitchcock!

The use of light and dark, what you can see and can’t. The control of lighting and its minimalist distribution harks back to film noirs, but more specifically their main influence, German Expressionism. It has a clear expressionist nature in the surrealist aspects of the film, the shadows create a vivid feeling of dread, almost as if Eggers is hiding something – it keeps you on the edge of your seat. On the other hand, the symbolism of the birds heavily relate to that of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, after the repetition of the quite absurd obsession of one seagull, you get a shivering feel of fear as it’s all but too peculiar.


The Lighthouse is Robert Egger’s masterpiece of mythic quality. Dafoe and Pattinson deliver preposterously fanastic performances, it is one of the greatest achievements in cinema this year and is an unstoppable force of dark and maddening confinement. I cannot stop thinking about the film, even hours after watching, the impact remains.

5/5 Stars ★★★★★

Ben Rolph

THE LIGHTHOUSE premiered at CANNES and is playing at the BFI London Film Festival NOW


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