TIFF Review: You are not prepared for ’The Lighthouse’

Courtesy of TIFF

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the 2019 Toronto International Film Festivalclick here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our full TIFF archives of past coverage.

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse begins as you might expect it would: A dour establishing shot featuring its tiny island setting, its twin lights cutting through the thick fog like knives, as glimpsed far from shore on a boat. Two men stand at the mast, observing their destination; they’re the new lighthouse keepers, assigned to a month-long shift maintaining the light. The senior keeper (or wickie, as he calls himself), Tom (a brilliant Willem Dafoe), has been doing this for years and years, despite his limp and advancing age, and has the stories and scars to show for it. The younger man, Efram (Robert Pattinson, doing a great combination of Connie from Good Time and Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York), is quiet and reserved, as if he’s hiding something. The two men nearly come to blows on the first night when Efram refuses one of Tom’s whisky toasts over their dinner of salted cod and greens, but they soon form, if not a working relationship, a functional one. But odd shit is happening around them: Efram finds a carved mermaid statue in his bunk, and later on, he thinks he sees a bare-ass naked Tom hugging the light, late one night. Soon, both men will descend into a drunken madness on the eve of a massive Nor’easter, and a whole bunch of people in the audience who paid to see this because they liked The Witch will wonder exactly what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into. That’s because whatever you think The Lighthouse is, it’s probably not. It is most definitely not The Witch, that’s for sure. It is, however, on roughly the same level as that brilliant film, at least in terms of its quality.

Yet, I wouldn’t necessarily qualify The Lighthouse as a total departure from his previously established style, as there’s a definitely a shared DNA between his works. Thematically, cosmic horror remains a big focus of Eggers’, as the all-consuming “light” that drives lighthouse keepers mad with its revelations of… well, whatever, is alluring and creepy in the same way that Satan’s grasp was in The Witch. There’s a creepy-ass animal, as well, though this film’s seagulls don’t have, say, the Funko POP marketability that Black Philip did. The emphasis on preserving long-dormant aspects of New England culture manifests itself in plenty of ways, especially within the shanties and slang that Dafoe’s character peppers his often incomprehensible speech. Once again, it rewards you with what you bring to it, especially in how it colors your perceptions of its ending, though some may accuse Eggers of being purposefully abstract to conceal a perfunctory or absent meaning.

I still haven’t totally come down on whether or not the film has a greater point or if it is simply content with being a functional old school surrealist depiction of madness, but I’m looking forward to discovering more on a second viewing. And, depending on where you stand, it’s “elevated” genre, though the film itself works without the pretension that often defines others of its ilk. It’s sort of the anti-Midsommar, and given that A24 themselves want to stress that Eggers and Ari Aster are on equal footing, the comparison is invited and is found suitably lacking. 

Befitting that status, it is perhaps, one of the best lateral moves in recent horror memory, an expansion of tone and style that reveals a whole different shade of character to a previously-assumed aesthetic. For one, the greyscale visuals by Jarin Blaschke are incredible, and his compositions often evoke the styles of Murnau and James Whale without ever feeling like pastiche (speaking of Whale, there’s a shot of Dafoe at one point in which he practically looks like Boris Karloff from The Old Dark House, and it it is a treat). It is a distinct look that must have been incredibly difficult to replicate, given that the production used period-appropriate camera equipment to film this project, and this pays off handsomely by offering some wonderfully deep and vivid surrealist imagery (ever want to know what a mermaid’s genitalia looks like? You’ll find out here!).

But most notably, the tone is totally different, as the tragedy of his first film is fully replaced in The Lighthouse by a pitch-black and often uproariously funny comedy, which the slow burn serves just as well as the corruption (or liberation) of Thomasin did. It cannot be stressed just how wacky this incredibly goofy movie is, with Pattinson and Dafoe both playing into the patent ridiculousness of their characters and their individual variations on drunken madness. It perfectly clashes with the photography It’s also refreshing, oddly, to see just how low-brow Eggers is willing to go with his gags as well. There are copious amounts of fart jokes, a memorable piss-and-shit gag plucked from The Big Lebowski (think Folgers, not living room decor), and a series of monologues by Dafoe that are so ridiculous and pitch-perfect that it’s hard not to imagine him getting some sort of recognition for them.

The Lighthouse really feels like it shouldn’t exist as it does, as this movie is just so wild and out there that it’s hard to believe it’s getting pushed to as many theaters as it will. At points, it almost seems like Eggers and his co-writer decided to just write out a lengthy sea-themed “and then” improv session, and did a bunch of research and work around it to obscure its origins. It is buckwild and vivid, funny and freaky. These are all good attributes to have, as more directors with the kind of newfound clout that Eggers has should use their power to push out their wildest fantasies to as broad an audience as possible, and I think that the landscape of mainstream fall-horror cinema is better off for it, much like it was when Luca Guadagnino dropped Suspiria on us last season.

It’s another home-run for A24’s premiere genre director, and it’ll likely astonish, frustrate and bewilder audiences that decide to take the ride.