‘Lighthouse’ sends viewers down spiral into dread and madness

October 26, 2019

Those of us in Sussex County have the benefit of visiting not one, but two lighthouses right in our own backyard. The thought of being tasked with maintaining one is a romantic idea for many: the solitude and adventure while swathed on all sides by the salty sea air. 

But as you read the duties assigned to such a job, the bright lens that may draw some can start to cloud. The backbreaking labor, the isolation, the countless hours in cramped quarters filled with repetitive, menial tasks punctuated only with death-defying responsibilities in the most extreme weather conditions.

Or, when you are finding yourself fantasizing about the role, you can simply watch Robert Eggers’ nightmarish “The Lighthouse.” It is a followup to his acclaimed debut “The Witch,” as it sends viewers down its own spiral staircase of psychological dread and madness.

It will certainly be not everyone’s pint of rum, but it’s fitting for those looking for a macabre drama in which almost every scene is steeped in unreality as they watch the protagonists perhaps slowly lose their grip on sanity. 

“Lighthouse” focuses solely on its two leads: Robert Pattinson is the young Ephraim Winslow, a drifting laborer who lands on piled slabs of stone off the coast of New England in the 19th century. He is joined at the eponymous structure by a wily, wiry (and very windy) “wickie” (played by Willem Dafoe), who is tasked with actually maintaining the light itself.

“Wickies” are responsible for keeping the oil beacon burning, and Ephraim soon realizes that his role there is little more than glorified domestic servant. And when they are blanketed by days of unforgiving New England weather, and drenched in nightly binges of hard liquor,  the two men start to slowly creep into each other’s already-unstable minds.

Eggers only adds to the madness by giving us two unreliable narrators, so we are never truly sure that what we are witnessing is actually happening, or rather the perceptions of drunken, psychotic men. Additionally, he presents the film steeped in the aesthetics of German Expressionism (think films like “M,” “Nosferatu,” and “Metropolis”). 

Unlike Eggers’ debut “The Witch,” “The Lighthouse” has the budget to go all in with his moody tale, and its stark black-and-white photography and condensed aspect ratio all serve its narrative, even though the ambiguity of it may keep some audience members at arm’s length.

What they will be drawn to is the captivating performances of its leads. With his deeply lined visage and mile-wide grin, and sporting a beard that resembles octopus tentacles, Dafoe seems to have been born into his role of the aged keeper. If he appeared any more seaworthy here, he’d have barnacles.

And Pattinson continues to refine his skills. Here, he gives a captivating performance of a slow mental decay. He’s been building a body of work that has all but erased his early “Twilight” start, and the young actor holds his own every moment with Dafoe at his finest. 

It’s a film that will certainly find have a tough time finding its footing with mainstream audiences. However, those who don’t mind stories that are not fortified with a singular purpose and can be left for multiple interpretations will no doubt find shelter behind “The Lighthouse’s” cinematic breakwater. 

“The Lighthouse” is currently in limited release, but will open wider Oct. 25 with showings in Salisbury and then expand in the following weeks. 


  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society. Email him at

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