The Robert Eggers Movies Ranked

I remember seeing THE WITCH in 2015 and thinking this Robert Eggers guy is pretty good. When I discovered it was only his first feature, I was blown away, as it had the restrained hand of someone who had been at it for longer. But then, the guy had been working as a production designer since 2007, beginning with his own first short film, HANSEL AND GRETEL. In the 15 years between then and now, with the release of THE NORTHMAN, Eggers has made six films: three shorts and three features. I wanted to dive into his whole filmography so far, but I’ve only been able to rank five movies here; his 2008 short THE TELL-TALE HEART is notoriously difficult to track down. Across the movies that are easily accessible, however, Eggers demonstrates an incredible eye and consistency and channels a conduit of older film made new.

Made seven years after THE TELL-TALE HEART, BROTHERS came after the biggest gap between directorial credits for Eggers, although of course he had not yet received widespread critical attention. That would come later in 2015, when THE WITCH would release. But this ten-minute short that came just before that great success is probably Eggers’ least satisfying film. BROTHERS isn’t nearly a bad film; it’s got a meditative menace in the same way THE WITCH does, and like that film and HANSEL AND GRETEL, it indicates the director’s early thematic consistency of the woods as harbingers of evil. It’s shot well and performed admirably by the two young actors at its center, but perhaps ten minutes simply isn’t enough time to develop enough rapport with the characters, whose stories end in a tragedy that left me feeling mostly cold rather than affected. Even still, BROTHERS displays a technical proficiency and Eggers’ ability to direct an oppressive tone.

Even though BROTHERS has the look of a “real movie,” while HANSEL AND GRETEL has that grainy video quality of amateur productions of the mid-2000s, I prefer Eggers’ first homegrown short more. Its lengthier, sure, but more than that, there’s a certain strangeness to it that makes it an ultimately more compelling watch. Eggers’ black-and-white cinematography is often overexposed in the daytime wood scenes, and as mentioned, there’s a low fidelity that is at times distracting, but on the whole, HANSEL AND GRETEL indicates an instinct that would be celebrated in a little under a decade. There are some really great shots here, and Eggers’ production designer mind yielded a convincing and dare I say cute gingerbread witch’s house. But of course, inside, it’s a different story, and especially here, the director’s appreciation for silent Expressionism is obvious, with dark voids and stark lighting. Oh, did I mention HANSEL AND GRETEL is silent? All of these elements serve the short well, keeping things simple but generally visually punchy. The short may also be Eggers’ most conventional story, since it’s played straight along with a more modern version of the fairytale and ends in happiness. In hindsight, strange stuff for Eggers, but then, the rest of the production around the narrative, that is, the visual eye, the production design, and yes, the cultivation of a scary tone, make HANSEL AND GRETEL an entertaining experiment and exciting predecessor to greatness.

I just wrote that HANSEL AND GRETEL has the most conventional story of Eggers’ films, but in a way, THE NORTHMAN may have that distinction. Veering away from the overt horror of his first two features, the filmmaker committed to a grimy, bloody, and dark Viking revenge epic. His previous two movies were defined by a slow yet powerful build to the extraordinarily supernatural, but Eggers dives into death and mayhem pretty quick with THE NORTHMAN, and more or less keeps up that pace for the rest of the movie. But it’s not like the film isn’t in keeping with his style; the production design is still incredible, the cinematography distinct. When I first saw trailers of the film, I thought the whole movie would have that kind of drab grey look many have these days. While Eggers leans into that for certain scenes, I was impressed by the lush greenery of much of his setting. And I was quite enamored with the night scenes, which are so desaturated so as to make the movie almost black-and-white…with the exception of the vibrant orange torchlight. But for all the acuity the director brings to the fight scenes and medieval setting, which are often rendered with all the visual panache of a dulled blade in other films, Eggers really succeeded by drawing out that same feeling of strange magic and darkness with THE NORTHMAN’s supernatural moments. Throughout these scenes especially, he seems to call back to silents like the DIE NIBELUNGEN films (1924) and FAUST (1926). I appreciate all these elements, but it’s true that the movie is pretty one-note; there’s lots of macho yelling and brutal violence. In the depiction of Alexander Skarsgard’s title character, it’s clear that the director isn’t necessarily romanticizing his hero, or making him some noble figure in the harsh world of the 10th century. It’s a respectable angle to take, but by the end of THE NORTHMAN, I couldn’t help but feel a bit empty, a bit drained from the action without much to buoy me. But then, that’s probably the point of the movie, a revenge tale that doesn’t quite lionize or vilify its main character. Ultimately, THE NORTHMAN is an entertaining and exceedingly well-made action movie, especially as compared to its modern peers; it’s just not at the exceptional level of its two predecessors.

For as successful as THE WITCH was, I feel like THE LIGHTHOUSE was the film that propelled Eggers’ work to a new level of popularity. Since it stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, two of the internet’s favorite eccentric actors, the movie’s imagery and bizarre comedic moments seemed to take at least one segment of the meme-verse by storm. That imagery is presented with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and in a square aspect ratio; that playing around with frames is all the rage right now, but it works for Eggers and this movie. Pattinson and Dafoe give truly unhinged and tremendous performances, but as I found with THE WITCH’s great attention to period dialect, it’s at times simply hard to understand them. Nevertheless, this is one of the great “isolation pictures,” a supernaturally infused dive into masculine waters. THE LIGHTHOUSE made me laugh out loud as much as it spooked me, a distinction that’s not lost on me as Eggers’ other movies are largely humorless. The ending of this film still sticks in my mind, and the whole sweep of the thing is that of a bad (yet tremendously intoxicating) fever dream. THE LIGHTHOUSE was a great follow up to an incredible debut feature; although this placement would indicate that it’s technically a sophomore slump, there’s no doubt it rivals the greatness of THE WITCH.

I feel that THE LIGHTHOUSE and THE WITCH are more of a kind than Eggers’ other movies; although they all have a distinct style that you could ascribe to him via auteur theory, these two are more firmly in the “horror” genre camp if you must assign such a thing. Even still, for that shared tone and meticulous attention to period dialect and language (even more so than THE NORTHMAN, a mix of accents that does make it distinct from the attention the director paid to such things earlier), THE LIGHTHOUSE definitely feels loopier. As I wrote, it’s actually funny. THE WITCH is not so. Its dour, oppressive tone matches the sour, repressive lives of its Puritan characters and colonial New England setting. Although I said THE LIGHTHOUSE rocketed Eggers’ arthouse style into broader internet memes, I almost forgot that Black Phillip, a goat central to this film, also had his time in that sun. Anyways. “The vuh-vitch” as I and many others like to call it (thanks to the title font that renders the W into a VV) so impresses me for how invested it truly made me feel. Films are meant to transport us to another world, but they so rarely do so for me the way THE WITCH did. Its production design, costuming, and stark setting truly made me feel like I was in the 1630s, awash in the grime, danger, and monotony of it. Injected into that otherworldly feeling was a true ethereality, a supernatural bent that was thankfully not explained in full and instead relied on a creeping terror of a magic outside our ken, in a tradition of great “pagan horror” films that came before. THE WITCH is a slow burn, sure, and that attention to dialectical purity makes me think I wouldn’t be able to communicate with Puritans if I was sent back in time even though we technically speak the language. But the culmination of its vibe and the beautiful darkness with which it visually renders it is incredible. THE WITCH still stands as Robert Eggers’ best film, an all-enveloping bit of dark magic that I, for some reason, would steep myself in again.



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