Where to begin with The Lighthouse? If you go in expecting the creeping Satanic dread of writer/director Robert Eggers last film, The Witch, you’ll be let down. That’s not to say there’s no creeping dread, because there’s plenty, it’s simply of a different sort. The film edges up to the supernatural, but is more concerned with what lurks inside, deep down, waiting to emerge. It’s also, as my notes taken during the screening attest, “weird as balls.” Somehow it works. I’m not always entirely certain how, but it does.
The Lighthouse feels like an artifact from a bygone era. The tale of two olde-timey New England lighthouse keepers—veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and newbie Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson)—slowly unravelling on a remote island, it’s filmed in an odd throwback aspect ratio, so the frame is more or less a square. At the same time it’s an aesthetic anachronism, it’s also quite contemporary.
Watching the two men disintegrate over months of being stranded and alone is hallucinatory and hypnotizing. With every element designed to inspire agitation and unease, it’s blackly comic and unsettlingly surreal. There’s so much farting and co-workers stuck in close proximity fucking with each other. Aside from the dueling deteriorating mental states, the primary antagonist is a one-eyed seagull who shows up to taunt and torment Ephraim.
Biblical and mythological allusions butt up against critiques of capitalism and the ruling class. It alternates between dreary over seriousness and patent, winking absurdity. Squirming Lovecraftian terror and escalating paranoia juxtapose against what may be best described as juvenile bathroom humor. Seriously, fart jokes and frantic masturbation abound.
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The Lighthouse is an odd duck indeed. But it’s also meticulous and painstakingly crafted. Within the unusual visual restrictions, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoots a singularly gorgeous movie, using every inch of the craggy, wind-swept island and the battered, decaying structures standing against the elemental onslaught. Mark Korven’s score delivers off-kilter jolts and nerve-pulling tension that perfectly matches and enhances the strangeness of the atmosphere and mood.
Eggers directs The Lighthouse to hell and back. Behind the scenes stories from the production drive that home—Pattinson said he almost punched the director at one point during filming. But that raw, antagonistic energy also burns through in the performances. And for a movie where only four people appear on screen, and two of them only in brief, momentary flashes, that’s key.
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For all the other elements, it’s Pattinson and Dafoe who steer the ship. They’re both operating on some heightened, next-level plane the rest of us can’t quite comprehend. Pattinson appears to be channeling his inner JFK, only besieged by dark demons and harboring terrible secrets. Isolation and pressure and constant abuse from his boss propel him closer and closer to the edge. Dafoe’s drunk, grizzled, gaseous lighthouse vet, full of salt-tinged wisdom, stormy tall tales, and just the absolute best toasts, edges up to disaster in his own way. We see the toll this life has taken on him, body, mind, and spirit. Together they form a remarkable duo; hostile and clashing, but also weirdly affectionate and bonded.
There’s a lot to be said about The Lighthouse; I’m sure much will be said, there’s quite a bit to dissect. It begs for an immediate rewatch to unravel, unpack, and decipher, and it’s certainly the kind of film that benefits from and evolves under multiple viewings. Whether it all coheres or not is a topic I’m sure will be debated, but it’s a spectacle to behold. Stop reading this, go see the movie, and try to wrap your brain around the madness. [Grade: A]