Director Robert Eggers has steeped the followup to his 2015 feature debut The VVitch with so much atmosphere and ambiance, it’s hard to care about the characters trapped in the inky, 4:3 framed black and white nightmare that is The Lighthouse. And sure “nightmare” may be the point, but beyond style (like using language inspired by reading Herman Melville) it only becomes an exercise in atmospherics, especially if you can only understand one of the characters 60 percent of the time (a fellow critic unscientifically came up with this number while defending the film, har-har).
There’s a simple way to sum up this movie without giving away its horror elements, the genre in which Eggers is associated with. Two lighthouse keepers working two shifts at a New England lighthouse in the late 19th century. The younger, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), cracks under the isolation and bullying of the veteran keeper, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), and the film soon becomes a surreal fever dream based on isolation. It’s not a pleasant trip. I — probably among most critics — understand films don’t always have to be pleasant. However, this film probably feels so one-note that it could have probably served better as a short movie. Still, they spent all this money on building a lighthouse for this movie, so why not make it a near two-hour endurance test?
The care and detail out into creating atmosphere by production designer Craig Lathrop, artistic director Matt Likely and costume designer Linda Muir should be commended. Eggers himself has more production design credit than his has as a director. The finer points suffuse the movie. Still, it all comes across as rather superficial. Our two heroes are in a claustrophobic situation, so the decision to shoot the movie in 4:3, for instance, becomes an easy crutch. Then we get to watch as two men fail to respectfully communicate, leading to a charged atmosphere — with a bit of bad luck for poor Tom, who only took this trying gig to fulfill dreams of building a house in the woods.
When you’ve seen Guy Maddin (Film Review: ‘Keyhole’ offers journey toward redemption for the dead) and Béla Tarr (Béla Tarr’s ‘The Turin Horse,’ the first masterpiece film of 2012) do black and white claustrophobia so transcendentally, your standards should be high. The Lighthouse hammers on the same point over and over again, albeit darker and more disturbingly as Tom unravels. Then it ends on a note so jarring it’s like adding a superficial cherry atop a horrifyingly grey and grim mess of an ice cream sundae (but, yes, I downloaded The Lighthouse emoji pack). The film has received a lot of love by the critics, and there are bits of it that deserve admiration but don’t call this film substantive. Whereas The VVitch had something to say about a young woman stepping into her power via the occult, The Lighthouse is at best about a man falling into his weakness, and it’s just no fun without true sublimation.
The Lighthouse runs 109 minutes and is rated R. It opens nationwide on Friday, Oct. 25. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. A24 invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.