The first time I heard the fog horn in The Lighthouse it jolted me out of my seat. By around the sixth time I heard it, I was ready to throw something at the screen, such was the horn’s incessant ability to get under my skin. By the end of the movie however that horn had blared so often and so loud that it had simply become a part of me, an accepted aspect of my newfound reality as I stood seemingly on the cusp of madness. In a nutshell, that simple and frequent horn blast explains perfectly the special and terrifying power of The Lighthouse.
Robert Eggers follow-up to the fantastic The Witch starts off on an arresting note. His decision to film this movie in the unusual film ratio of 1:19:1 and in black and white sets it apart from the rest of modern cinema, immediately feeling claustrophobic and suffocating. We arrive on a fog-filled island at the end of the 19th century in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a lighthouse and the living quarters next to it occupying the island. We see two lighthouse keepers leave the island after their long shift, to be replaced by Ephraim (Robert Pattinson), a drifter who was desperate enough for money to agree on a months-long assignment far away from any civilization, and Thomas (Willem Dafoe), a seasoned veteran of the job who has seen many a novice crack under the pressures of the job’s extreme isolation and thus views Ephraim with derisive suspicion.
With nothing but the bitter cold, howling winds, that aforementioned infernal horn, strong alcohol, and a mermaid figurine for company, Ephraim is forced to slowly interact with his abrasive superior Thomas, a salty sea-dog who rules over his lighthouse with an iron fist. In some ways The Lighthouse is merely a workplace drama about the struggles of dealing with a difficult boss except that the isolation and extreme close quarters these two men occupy turns every disagreement, every slight, and every misunderstanding into another explosive ingredient into the ever growing caldera of tension between the two. The Lighthouse is a horror movie about being unable to escape, where your only source of human connection to keep you from becoming insane might in fact be actively contributing to it.
Of course a movie with only two speaking roles requires dynamic performers and there is no doubt that Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are up to the task. For most of the population it should be no surprise that Dafoe shoulders his end of the bargain easily, having quietly put together one of the more impressive acting resumes over his four decades or so in the field. Sinking effortlessly into Thomas’ scraggly beard and corn cob pipe, he blends seamlessly into becoming an extension of the lighthouse itself. His sing-song pirate voice should be comically out of place but such is his conviction that we fall under his sea shanty spell and hang on his every word. That he is able to change from jovial to dangerously angry on the turn of a dime simply adds to the unhinged uncertainty that carries throughout the movie. He is a madman but of the most entertaining variety, bringing a lightness to the movie’s heavy proceedings even as he actively contributes to our fraying from reality.
If Dafoe’s excellent performance is to be expected, it is Pattinson’s that is revelatory. Like his fellow Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, Pattinson has long been the butt of jokes and unfairly labelled as a less-than-stellar actor thanks to her connection to that franchise. Stewart, through her steady commitment to indie work has long shed any false conceptions of her lack of acting ability, especially with her phenomenal performance last year in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper; The Lighthouse should do the same for Pattinson’s reputation. Dafoe’s Thomas is an open book of craziness whose insanity is this movie’s only constant; it is Pattinson’s slow descent from sanity to madness that is the terrifying thrust of this movie, and is as captivating as it is visceral. Come awards season, it will be a crime if Dafoe and Pattinson are left on the outside looking in.
But while Dafoe and Pattinson represent important pieces of the puzzle, much of what makes The Lighthouse such a terrifying watch is the supreme control with which director Robert Eggers manages to keep you oft-kilter at all times. Featuring a formalist shooting style akin to a Wes Anderson movie but with a decidedly Lynchian touch, The Lighthouse seems calibrated to wrack your nerves. With an unnerving and abrasive soundscape punctuated by Mark Korven’s dissonant score, the movie leaves absolutely no place for the viewer to feel anchored and no place to hide. Instead, like Ephraim himself we find ourselves slowly detaching from reality, as the buffeting waves and extreme isolation forces us to be buoyed only by the kind of logic that makes sense in that blurry state between being dreams and wakefulness.
The Lighthouse is a movie about darkness, and the way it allows us to hide our worst instincts, secrets, and behaviors; it is also a movie about what happens when that darkness meets blinding light and two people have to reckon both against one another and within each other when their worst is exposed. And while under most circumstances the risk of encountering humanity at its most insane is an excuse to walk away, when it is presented to us in the seductive vein of a mermaid’s siren song or the jovial singing of a sea shanty, it is impossible not to get sucked into The Lighthouse’s descent into madness.
Ratings: 109 minutes
Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Max Eggers and Robert Eggers
Starring Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson