Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe have the kind of everlasting faces that could have come from any era. Like all the stars of the silent era, they don’t need dialogue; a whole movie could be hung on the topography and angularity of their facial features, on what Pattinson glares at with those haunted eyes and how Dafoe uses that toothy grin of his to mirth or menace. The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ monochromatic nautical nightmare, supplies both actors with plenty of dialogue — pages upon pages of outrageous sea-shanty vernacular. But it also knows when to let those interesting, decorated with spectacular bunches of hair, faces to do the talking for them. Very early on, Eggers, who’s following up his fantastic directorial debut The Witch, arranges them side by side in the frame by way of introduction. Staring right towards the camera, they look starved and weary and American, as though they’ve walked straight out of an early, faded photograph. Or maybe we’ve walked into one, snapped on a lonely spike of seaside rock, circa a primeval yesterday of the 1890s.
For just shy of two hours, The Lighthouse sees another Eggers tale centering on a small group of characters surrounded by the elements and consumed by invisible forces, driving each other mad in the process. The film is set at a lighthouse station on a craggy island off the coast of Maine, sometime in the 1890s. It’s here that a veteran lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake (Dafoe), convenes with his new protégé, an ex-lumberjack named Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), for a four-week stint of hard, solitary work. Thomas, whose vocabulary is even mightier than his beard, is a tyrant of a boss when sober; he barks belittling orders and obsesses his nocturnal duty of manning the light. When drunk, which is basically every night, he’s a literal and figurative gasbag, his verbiage as pungent as his flatulence. For Ephraim, a gaunt and quiet fellow holding back a tsunami of resentment, it’s going to be a long month filled with much drinking and swearing, shoveling and snarling. All his time spent enduring the whimsical nonsense of this old sea dog and breaking his back dragging barrels of oil up winding staircases of the phallic tower. Together their tempers will gradually turn as foul and abrasive as the New England weather. You don’t know how their story will end, only that it won’t likely end well.
Hell, as they say, is other people. But does some actual unholy force, rising from deep within the drink, threaten the already fragile sanity of these lost souls? Visions of beautiful-grotesque alluring creatures and slimy, erotic tentacles haunt Ephraim’s dreams. As in The Witch, that intense crucible of religious terror on the edge of civilization, Eggers blurs the line between madness and supernatural danger, not dismissing the latter as illusion so much as treating it like an outgrowth of the former. The Lighthouse is another New England folktale, another homegrown period piece of isolation, flavorfully archaic language, and menacing seagulls. (The bird is a spiritual successor to the demonic goat Black Phillip in The Witch, but more than that, a keen gateway to the movie’s ecological undertones.) If it can be believed, this is an even less commercial venture than its predecessor. Eggers and his cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, shoot on a chalky, foggy black-and-white 35mm celluloid bathing its images with expressionistic shadows all captured in the square-like 1.19:1 aspect ratio (not the academy aspect ratio like many have misreported) — choices that lend it a throwback classicism, while also enhancing the claustrophobia and hopelessness of the grimy, secluded setting. It has a haunting quality of a genuine window into some forgotten past, while the wind and waves whip across the sound design and Mark Korven’s ominous score.
The Lighthouse, for all its nightmarish qualities, masterfully balances its tone. Like any number of Hollywood directors before him, Eggers is a hell of a showman and a bit of sadist, and the brash pleasure of this movie exists in inverse proportion to the misery it inflicts on its characters. The Lighthouse, which Eggers cowrote with his brother, Max, is a ferocious battle of wills, a tour de force of cold clammy suspense and deep descent into cabin-fever madness. Eggers, who was a production and costume designer before taking a seat in the directing chair, continues his incredible period accuracy with The Lighthouse. Except here he’s grown only more rigorous in his commitment to antiquated dialects and ramshackle production design (courtesy of Craig Lathrop) than he was with The Witch. It comes as little surprise to learn that the dialogue was heavily influenced by 19th century authors (including Herman Melville and Sarah Orne Jewett), or that the lighthouse station was painstakingly constructed for the film itself. But all of it together summates to an incredibly immersive quality that totally transports you to the time, and never for a second do you question it.
“Stick to yer duties. The light is mine,” Thomas tells Ephraim, warning him away from the bright rotating aerobeacon that he keeps blazing night after night. That light has mysterious, perhaps even mythic properties, and it seems to drive Ephraim slowly mad with resentment as it glares down on him from above, an Olympus-like touch-point eternally out of reach. In these moments, The Lighthouse reaches a peak of pure-cinema ecstasy, as the grandeur of Eggers’ imagery, like something torn from a volume of old ghost stories, becomes inextricable from its meaning: The mesmerizing play of film-noir shadows over Ephraim’s faces speaks to his envy and desire more palpably than any words could.
From start to finish, Pattinson and Dafoe are nothing short of a hoot. Though both of their characters have secrets to keep, they’re also open books, broadcasting their insecurities and anxieties as clearly as the light shines over the dark waters. They drink, they piss, they masturbate, they hurl deep insults, they beat their chests like King Kong, they almost make the homoerotic subtext into text, before lurching back into panicked, overcompensating fisticuffs. Dafoe may have the showier role (a late, great monologue of hexing pleas to the sea gods should join a pantheon of Dafoe’s career), but it is the beautifully brooding Pattinson, who has the tricky task of steering this two-hander into a full-blown psychological tempest. Like many younger actors going up against a seasoned veteran, Pattinson has the look of someone with something to prove, and makes that tension work for the character. Steering this whole ship with a mesmeric eeriness.
The Lighthouse is so attuned to its many cinematic traditions that it feels like a movie that could have been made decades ago. The visual language and story beats convey everything from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Persona to Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, another modern black-and-white minimalist saga about two people trapped in a shadowy enclosure as the world collapses around them. The Lighthouse is a movie that on one hand hails from the Herman Melville school of man-versus-nature epics, while at the same time it often reduces that element to the background to explore the perils of unchecked masculinity coming to blows. The film establishes the main threat from the early outset, hiding it in plain sight: an enchanting, twirling light providing these moths with an eternal flame. As we come to an end with a conclusion that’s in the vein of a disturbing variation on the Tower of Babel, we learn the potential for enlightenment is a profound lie, and the men who buy into it are kidding themselves all until it’s too late. Centered on the ferocious duo of Pattinson and Dafoe, The Lighthouse sinks you into a maddening psyche of sea shanties, farts and enchanting hallucinations, all encompassing to something of near-masterpiece stature.