It’s the 1890s. The world is a sea of mist, and a boat punches through it, foghorns blasting and engine chugging. Were it not for the waves breaking under the bow you couldn’t quite tell where the ocean ends and the sky begins: it hangs like some cerebral and color-scrubbed obstacle in a rainy haze. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse opens with this oneiric, perturbing vision, and hangs in that same nebulous universe all throughout, straddling dreams and nightmares. A follow-up to his fulminating 2015 folk horror debut The Witch, this is an entrancing and feverish descent into hell, peppered with a dark, alcohol-fueled, wry comic edge.
Aboard the steamboat are Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake and Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow. Wake is spirited-eyed, spiky-haired and rotten-toothed ex-sailor with a penchant for liquor, flatulence, and sea-dog stories. Winslow is his right hand—a bookish, taciturn, and cash-strapped former logger on a quest for money and on the run from some dark secrets lurking on the mainland. They first grace the frame like two silent statues, peering from the deck at something further ahead. It’s a barren island off the coast of Nova Scotia. Towering atop the island is a lighthouse. They’ve been hired to keep it.
Shot in location and austere black-and-white, The Lighthouse chronicles the four weeks the pair spend cooped up in the isolated rock, while tempests rage on, waves crash against the cliffs, and seagulls caw their sinister litanies (much like they did in The Witch, animals play a key role here too, drawing interesting parallels between Eggers and the man-beast metamorphoses so dear to Yorgos Lanthimos). The boxy Academy ratio amplifies the claustrophobia while adding to Wilson’s maddening struggle to break free from Wake’s yoke. For the two lighthouse keepers, fighting as they may be with their own unresolved traumas, are also very much at war with each other, and Eggers’ two-men’s show draws most of its electrifying energy from the constant grinding and jostling of the two leads.
Winslow’s gig amounts to a plethora all sorts of demeaning chores, from tending to the cistern, swabbing liquor-stained floors, and emptying buckets of shit into the stormy sea. No point in even thinking about tending to the actual lighthouse chamber; as Dafoe bellows among alcohol-propelled dinners, the beam is strictly off limits. “I tend the light,” his Wake croaks, eyes bloodshot with drinks and rage, “the light is mine.” Why on earth that may be is a question the script, penned by Eggers and his brother Max, hints at by means of haunting and spine-tingling reveries, with Pattinson’s Winslow, a deranged cross between a Prometheus and Icarus, slowly plunging into the same fate previous aides of Dafoe’s allegedly succumbed to: unhinged madness.
To be watching The Lighthouse is to join in the same journey. Eggers’ sophomore may strike as a more calculating and less terrifying ordeal than The Witch, but it remains a disquieting, stomach-churning plunge. It is a manic dream of a film that, with no real jump scare moments under its belt, still engulfs one in a terrifying embrace, accentuated by Mark Korven’s low strings and foghorn-heavy score.
Dafoe and Pattinson are nothing short of sensational. The Lighthouse is their movie, in the very literal and visceral sense that sees the drama thrum into being as the result of the crashing, colliding, and merging of their bodies and screen personas. Scummed with peat and mud, eyes sunken, gaze adrift, Pattinson is only 33 but exemplifies here some ancient shroud, and there is a near inebriating quality to his performance: you feel the rancid smell of feces, alcohol, and sweat as the chores and humiliations work on him physically, sealing his gaze and pushing him closer to the abyss. But it is Dafoe the scene-stealer, spell-binding in his ability to oscillate between moments of vitriolic fury to others where his failed-captain façade cracks open, and insecurities come to the surface, making room for unexpected bromides—his Wake begging Wilson to appreciate his cooking skills ranks high among The Lighthouse most hilarious segments. Talk-heavy but never remotely patchy, the Eggers’ script draws from 19th century nautical jargon, and part of the many pleasures is to watch the vernacular chomped and spat back to life through the clumsy, toxic exchanges between Wake, a farting cross between an evangelical pastor and a pirate, and the bookish-turned-alcoholic-turned-paranoid Winslow.
“You are no longer human,” he shouts at Wake as the drama heads to its climax, but by then the statement can be safely applied to both. Eggers’ tale stretches far beyond the confines of a godforsaken island and its lighthouse. It draws from a pantheon of centuries-old heroes and mythical archetypes, from Captain Ahab to Triton, from Sisyphus to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. In this sense, the beauty of The Lighthouse resides in his timelessness. This is a film that exists beyond time, a folk tale that harkens back to ancestral struggles between wrathful gods and men’s hubris. Dafoe and Pattinson spend half their time fighting each other and the other half enveloped in tender, boozy embraces. A near-tangible electricity permeates each and every exchange, but there are moments when the drama veers into a homoerotic terrain too, crystallized in shots of Pattinson’s muscles and sublimated in the phallic image of the lighthouse at its center. It is a relentless, intoxicating fight of two men fumbling after the light and receding deeper into darkness.
And it just looks gorgeous. Eggers, whose meticulousness and attention to period details had graced The Witch with a mesmeric look, opts for old 35mm cameras shooting on Orthochromatic stock. An early standard in filmmaking eventually replaced for its tendency to make skin tones too dark, it does wonders to capture the hues of candlelit dinner conversations, the filth covering the pair’s faces, turning the scarcely furbished interiors into nightmarish ink drawings. The few moments cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s camera ventures outside the confines of the dim-lit interiors to capture a misty, aluminum sky, the light feels almost unbearably bright. For this remains a tale of darkness, with a lighthouse whose lugubrious beam doesn't thrust people into light, but only brings them closer to insanity.