The Lighthouse is both a confusing and straightforward movie to watch, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Robert Eggers’ black and white nautical horror doesn’t really have a plotline — The Lighthouse veers and gains momentum with little warning, relying on the weather, the sea, and the sanity of its characters for direction. But at the end of the day, the movie only has three characters: Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), and a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) whose limited screentime consists of some haunting, some beach sex, and not much else. Moreover, the story is exceedingly simple: Two lighthouse keepers drive each other past the point of sanity while stuck on a lonely island, tasked with the responsibility of keeping the lighthouse lit against a backdrop of raging winds and waters and aggressive seagulls, with only each other for company.
It doesn’t seem like Eggers is trying to make a movie with a neat arc or purpose. The lack of structure is part of its charm. But that means so much of The Lighthouse depends on Dafoe and Pattinson’s performances, which intensify as the film progresses. In the start, Pattinson’s countenance sometimes edges on boredom when it needs anger. But as Winslow starts to grow suspicious of Wake, the ocean, and even reality, Pattinson starts to push through the veneer, gradually escalating his movements and expressions with frenetic intensity. The Lighthouse shows off what’s been clear about Pattinson since his most iconic role as a stoic vampire: He’s a talented, multifaceted actor.
Aside from witnessing Pattinson and Dafoe scream, drink, and lose their minds together, there isn’t much methodology behind The Lighthouse’s structure — save for a somewhat sloppy seagull motif that attempts to find relevance in the film, but fails. Seagulls do show up sparingly for some confusing moments: Winslow beats a particularly malicious one to death in a moment that borders on black comedy and plain gruesomeness.
But the seagulls are more of a red herring than anything — the real star is the water, and how Eggers commands the natural element for his narrative. Vomit mixes with rain, shit and piss spray in the salty air, the sea looms gray and large and terrifying. As Wake and Winslow’s own mental stability starts to deteriorate along with the quaint peace of the uninhabited island, the water elevates the chaos.
It’s really impressive for The Lighthouse, which has given itself very little terms to work with, cutting color out of the equation entirely with its black and white palette. The Lighthouse uses framing techniques and stark shadows, but sometimes it’s questionable whether or not the black and white is the best option for The Lighthouse. What is it really bringing to the film, other than a vague historical atmosphere? Would adding creamy grays and sea-green hues to the fog and ocean have detracted from the horror? Or is the strangely anachronistic style choice actually useful?
But color isn’t the only tool filmmakers have. Sound engulfs the film in terror in more ways than one. Sharp audio transitions act as their own pseudo jump scares, and a foghorn revertebrates throughout the film like a haunt. There’s so much care being put into the sound of The Lighthouse that it feels like a spectacle in itself. As Winslow screams into the air, the sea, the nothingness, a foghorn replaces his voice, ringing through the space with its own kind of warning.