Robert Eggers’ hallucinatory new film, The Lighthouse, is about two men getting sick of each other. In terms of plot, that’s all there is to it. But when I say that those two men could be Captain Ahab from Moby Dick and Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, and that they are trapped in what could be the holiday cottage from Withnail and I, and that their stir-craziness recalls Jack Torrance from The Shining, you’ll get some sense of how exhilaratingly strange and violent their ordeal is.
More like this:
- Film review: The Irishman
- Can cinema still shock?
- Film review: Ad Astra
Set in the late-19th Century, The Lighthouse is Eggers’ second film, following his acclaimed debut, The Witch. Like that film, The Lighthouse balances horror and history: both dramas concern either the supernatural, or the psychological effects of being isolated in a remote, rugged setting. But The Lighthouse is a bolder and more skilful film. Some sequences build to such overwhelming intensity that you grip your seat as if you’re on the deck of a sailing ship during a savage storm. You realise that absolutely anything could happen – that there is nowhere the story won’t go and nothing the actors won’t do.
The actors in question, almost the only people in the whole film, are Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who seem to be competing to see who can have the most gaunt and hollow face. Both of them could use their cheekbones as deadly weapons. Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, a veteran ‘wickie’ (lighthouse keeper) with a bushy beard, a clay pipe, a wooden leg and a plentiful supply of rum. Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, a taciturn drifter who comes to Thomas’s wave-bashed little island to help him tend to its squat lighthouse.
When Ephraim starts glimpsing slimy monsters, it isn’t clear if they are products of his fevered imagination or the lighthouse’s mystic power, or both
During their four-week stint together, far from the New England coast, they will have no one else for company except a flock of aggressive seagulls: the souls of dead seamen, insists Thomas. The cottage they share isn’t too small, but they sleep side by side in a narrow garret room. You can tell that Ephraim is going to have a bad time when he first peeks into the room, bumps his head on the ceiling, and hears Thomas peeing into a chamber pot for what seems like ten straight minutes. The other bodily noises made by the old salt are repulsive, too, although none of them is as infuriating as what he says. He recites the same poetic toast before each of the men’s evening meals (the rich archaic dialogue was drawn from Herman Melville’s writings and from real lighthouse-keepers’ journals). And after Ephraim has been slaving away for hours – wheelbarrowing coal through the lashing rain, hefting barrels of oil up the winding stairs – his boss will stomp up to him and bark: “You’ve been neglecting your duties, lad!”
Wavering drunkenly between tyrannical wrath and wheedling neediness, Thomas reveals that his previous right-hand man went mad and killed himself. And while Ephraim suspects that this mangy sea dog is spinning one of his tall tales, it certainly seems possible. There are moments when Ephraim warms to Thomas, and doesn’t mind labouring on the lonely rock. But there are other moments when he loses track of time and reality. As if to add to his disorientation, the cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, has shot the film in inky black and white, with an aspect ratio so narrow that the screen is pretty much square. The two lighthouse-keepers seem to be squeezed together, with darkness on either side of them. Then there is Mark Korven’s music, which is not so much music as a deluge of unearthly throbs, squawks and groans, counterpointed by the cry of those pesky gulls and the deafening drone of the foghorn. When Ephraim starts glimpsing slimy monsters, it isn’t clear if they are products of his fevered imagination or the lighthouse’s mystic power, or both.
The Lighthouse is yet another example of Pattinson’s willingness to take on the riskiest art-house projects he can
Co-written by Eggers and his brother Max, the film doesn’t have a conventional narrative or a neat resolution, but there is always something happening. Every scene includes another shocking discovery, another potentially crippling accident, another suspicious and possibly magical occurrence, so the viewer seems to be getting more and more pieces of an increasingly surreal puzzle, even if that puzzle is never quite complete. The Lighthouse is yet another example of Pattinson’s willingness to take on the riskiest art-house projects he can – and the ones which make the most humiliating demands of him. I’m not at all sure which accent he was going for, but there is no denying his goggle-eyed gusto, whether he is using a mermaid figurine as a masturbatory aid, or being soaked to the skin by sea spray (and worse).
It could all be too bizarre and alienating to bear if it weren’t for one crucial factor: The Lighthouse is funny. Eggers balances its nightmarish grimness with humour in the bleak tradition of a British kitchen-sink sitcom, a Beckett play, and the aforementioned Withnail and I. You half-expect Ephraim to bleat, “We’ve gone on lighthouse-keeping duty by mistake!” And what a mistake it was.
Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.