The Lighthouse, 2019.
Directed by Robert Eggers.
Starring Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, and Valeriia Karaman.
The hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
The Lighthouse is about as boldly entrancing a second feature as one could imagine from any filmmaker, let alone Robert Eggers, who came swinging so confidently out of the gate with his singular debut The Witch. Watching his follow-up, there’s the feeling pervading through every single frame that the director got to make exactly the film he wanted to – and what a film it is indeed.
The set-up is simple; on the New England coast, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives at a remote lighthouse to begin a month’s worth of work alongside his surly, possibly insane colleague Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Forced to work and live together in the tight confines of the titular fixture, the pair quickly find themselves bouncing between tacit camaraderie and mutual resentment, as each comes to fear quite what darkness the other may hold in their heart.
While the film’s frosty opening sequence might imply Eggers’ film to be a sparse and slow avatar of stereotypical “art-house” cinema, The Lighthouse isn’t really that movie at all. Every single scene crackles with a dynamism in all the vital pillars of filmmaking – visuals, sound, dialogue, and especially performance. Every pregnant pause and held glance feels important, duly informing either the characters or the scant morsels of story – mostly the characters, though.
To paint a quick picture of the tone, the largely wordless atmosphere of the opening five minutes is promptly broken by Willem Dafoe’s run-down lighthouse keeper ripping a couple of cacophonous farts. It immediately lets the audience know that they’re going to laugh a fair amount through this surprisingly hilarious film, braced as it is so expertly between anxious tension and absurdist humour.
But Dafoe’s gas-filled protagonist can’t eradicate the film’s immediately unnerving atmosphere, with veteran and newbie lighthouse keeper clashing over matters both trivial and life-threatening. Throw in some ambiguous character backstories, a distillery’s worth of booze, a flock of suspiciously sinister seagulls, and a mystery surrounding the well-guarded light at the top of the lighthouse, and Eggers is cooking with gas – while intentionally discarding most exterior context.
There’s a visceral physicality present throughout this movie that’s incredibly difficult to achieve – this convincingly, at least. Our protagonists’ mere existence on this island, let alone their actual work, is depicted as rigorous and soul-draining, brought screaming to life through the richly foreboding environment. In reality it was filmed at a small fishing community in Nova Scotia, Canada, and is unquestionably one of the most striking cinematic locations you’re likely to see all year.
That’s without even getting into the film’s brief yet bracingly effective bursts of violence, the prolonged murder of a pesky animal proving at once deeply upsetting and perversely amusing (perhaps). But what truly bridges the ugly and the hysterical is the ambiguity of this reality (or un-reality), where literally everything is questionable.
Surreal sights we witness aren’t ever confirmed to be real or fabricated, nor much elaborated on, simply left to tick over in the audience’s mind while Eggers’ vision unfolds. That’s to say nothing of rich subtextual elements which progressively unfurl; there’s sure to be much written about the film’s clear homoeroticism and Freudian father-son thematic.
As a piece of technical filmmaking, The Lighthouse is a breathtaking work on many fronts. The cinematography, realised on 35mm black-and-white film, damn-near feels as though it could’ve actually been shot 80 or 90 years ago, accentuated by Eggers’ rigid reliance on basic, practical camera set-ups. It’s rather telling that the director opted for this aesthetic given that his second feature was originally supposed to be a remake of Nosferatu – and if this film is any indication, he probably would’ve nailed it.
Eggers’ returning DP Jarin Blaschke makes astounding use of light both natural and artificial, particularly shadows; seeing Dafoe’s eyes pierce through the black is a sight as beautiful as it is utterly terrifying (almost, anyway). Louise Ford’s emphatic editing meanwhile sutures the images together to a mesmerising clip, filling the film with brilliantly jarring cuts to ends both dramatic and comedic. The editing also perfectly accentuates the dreamlike passage of time throughout, and by making each beat bleed into the next without signposting a new scene’s arrival, the audience’s time too passes unexpectedly fast.
Almost as important to the film’s atmospheric success is its stunning sound design, which is apparent from the opening rhythmic pulse of Winslow’s transport arriving on the shore. The various ambient sounds – particularly of waves crashing and gulls screeching – lend so much to the film’s tonal and stylistic identity. As do Dafoe’s farts, of course. Hell, even the foley during a sequence where Pattinson masturbates sounds so squirm-inducingly intimate that it’s clearly had an unhealthy amount of attention paid to it. And thank God.
But more than anything else, even with its rich style, this is an actor’s movie, and Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson sure-as-hell deliver here. Dafoe adds yet another chameleonic home-run to his massive cachet as the flatulent lighthouse keeper, and it just might be one of the finest turns of his entire career. You may not understand every line of his garbled, sub-pirate verbiage, but you’ll surely feel it.
Despite Wake’s demented qualities, Dafoe does manage to bring a genuine, occasional sadness to the part, especially when the man seems honest-to-God slighted as Winslow disparages his lobster dinner. Between the sheer persuasive truth he brings to the character and that enviable beard, this is a landmark performance for the actor.
Pattinson is similarly remarkable, nailing Winslow’s transformation from a terse neophyte to a man who may or may not be losing his grip on reality. If Pattinson can continue to take bold roles like this while working them around his impending Batman schedule, one suspects an Oscar isn’t too far out of his reach. And while both men are surely worthy of an Academy Award for their work here, ripping through the film’s many dense, angry monologues with a frenzied, hypnotic mania, Eggers’ picture is surely too niche for that silliness.
As richly absorbing as it is visionary, The Lighthouse is an unforgettable mood piece and astonishing showcase for its two stars.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.