As in his 2015 directorial debut The Witch, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse grapples with the theme of spiritual annihilation, though in a way that’s altogether wetter, wilder, and weirder.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star as two wickies, or lighthouse keepers, cut off on a crag of brine-blasted, inhospitable rock far from the mainland.If God hadn’t made it as far as the New England wilderness of The Witch, it’s doubtful He’d know what to do if he made out this far.
Both men are initially sullen, uncommunicative types: Pattinson raw-cheeked and bearing a passing resemblance to There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, both in accent and bearing; Dafoe stern and bushy-bearded. It’s some time before they get sociable enough for us to even learn their names.
Ephraim (Pattinson) is saddled with the scuttle work – struggling with wheelbarrows of coal across the treacherous terrain, working to keep the generator running. Thomas (Dafoe), as the senior wickie, keeps the night watch, fiercely guarding over the light. He spends untold time bathing in its pure, white radiance in a state of rapture, or, quite possibly, orgasm.
Photographed in 35mm black and white, Jarin Blaschke’s candle-lit cinematography is both sharp, grainy, and evocative; capturing every rough-hewn detail of the briny, sandy, exposed world these men inhabit, while simultaneously feeling like a relic of 1920s cinema.
The 1.19:1 “Movietone” aspect ratio, the same used by F.W. Murnau in Sunrise, adds to this, as well as reinforcing the feeling of claustrophobia. Ephraim, a former lumber jack, wants to establish himself in his new trade. He resents Thomas denying him access to the light; a duty they should, by rights, share. The logbook Thomas keeps locked away is also a source of tension, promising a reckoning for sins real or imagined.
Thomas himself is mercurial, given to cheery conversation over dinner, when at the bottle – a pastime Ephraim initially refuses as against the rules – and blasts of salty faux-Shakespearean invective when crossed; thunderous nautical curses that would make King Lear blush.
The Lighthouse’s script, written by Robert and his brother Max, draws from sources from the era, as well as the writing of Herman Melville and Sarah Orne Jewett, though it may be fanciful that the word “protean” has ever sat so close before to the word “rum”; just my supposition.
This melding of the poetic and the vernacular elevates The Lighthouse from oddball melodrama to cinematic must-see, drawing both misery and comedy – often simultaneously – from its two characters as, mired in booze, secrets, and toxic masculinity, they descend into a shared mania that seems to be part cabin fever, part supernatural.
Thomas is both friend and tormenter to the aspirational Ephraim – confidante and gas-lighter; a grog-swilling old sea-dog with a mysterious limp who takes a certain self-satisfaction. in his own flatulence. Ephraim, meanwhile, between sessions of furious masturbation, is tormented by visions of inky octopi and pallid mermaids; not to mention a very real and persistent seagull, presumably a compatriot of The Witch’s Black Phillip.
Pattinson turns in an intensely committed physical performance, growing increasingly delirious as supplies run low and Thomas’ influence subtly grows, like a canker of the soul. Dafoe, meanwhile, is utterly beguiling. Shot like a figure from silent horror, eyes alight with revelation, he could be the Devil or just another soul in torment.
Mark Korven’s full-throated score vibrates in your very bones while Damian Volpe’s sound design immerses you in the nautical nightmare, where a scream can be a foghorn and man is inseparable from his environment. Bold and striking as to border on parody – a charge Ephraim levels against his salty-seadog companion – Eggers keeps things on a knife-edge of hysteria, though the self-consciously virtuosic nature of filmmaking on display does rob the film of some of its primal power.
As rich and strange a movie asyou’re likely to see this year – apart perhaps from Bait – The Lighthouse is a storm-blast of pure cinema; a knotty, slimy, many-tentacled beast that will ensnare you in your seat.
Misery loves company and The Lighthouse is a work of miseri-comic mastery with which you’ll want to make an acquaintance.