The Lighthouse is billed as a psychological horror film, and that pretty much captures the tone and pace of this movie. Strong performances by Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson are the glue that holds this film together. Unfortunately, a plodding plot risks disengaging audiences.
Tom (Defoe) and Winston (Pattinson) are lighthouse keepers, or wickies, in 1890. Tom is a crusty experienced keeper who knows what’s in store for their scheduled four-week gig on a rock island far away from shore. He’s also on a bit of a power trip as the senior keeper and one in charge. Winston is a former logger who is a bit of a wanderer, but taking his first job as a wickie. It’s a classic test of wills, and it’s the lighthouse (and the environment) that sets this movie apart.
Working a lighthouse was arduous, physical work, and The Lighthouse does a good job of conveying the backbreaking labor needed to literally keep the light on. Oil needs to be hauled up hundreds of steps in a spiral staircase to keep the light going, and a coal-fired steam engine keeps the light rotating. In between, someone has to keep the cistern clean and water potable to survive. Tom tasks Winston with these jobs, and this unbalanced assignment of tasks creates the tension that drives the plot.
The lighthouse’s isolation combined with the hard labor, leads to hallucinations, or so we think. The movie keeps the audience guessing about whether Tom and Winston’s behavior is just impatience, or truly erratic. We are never sure if their other worldly perceptions are induced by exhaustion, mental illness, or perhaps something paranormal.
The Lighthouse is the type of movie that puts the characters and actors in the spotlight. The movie is clearly a vehicle for Defoe, whose performance is strong enough he might get a major award nomination. The script also gives Pattinson enough to show the growing range of his own acting abilities.
If you enjoy deep character studies, horror (albeit on the mild side), and psychological suspense, The Lighthouse is probably a good movie to put on your list.