The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse ★★★★★

Needed second viewing to write this.

At its height, German Expressionism was celebrated for its severe unreality. During a silent film era dominated by adventure or romance, here was a style bathed in madness and psychological perversions as stark as its shadows. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse isn’t quite pure expressionism—he’s too fascinated with naturalism for that—but it may as well be with its pitiless gray skies, desolate black and white shores, and two stormy performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson that are so touched by madness that the cracks in their unblinking stares and crusty whiskers cast an unreality all their own.

Shot in 1.19:1, The Lighthouse is a descent into the kind of delirium that might come from drinking too much sea water or staring too long into the shimmer of a beckoning lantern—searching in vain for something dry or warm. Set at the end of the 19th century on a remote rock off the New England coast, The Lighthouse is about its eponymous structure, which stands forlornly even in the morning breeze. It is this exact sight that begins the movie for Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), who is arriving for his first stint as a wickie on the island. A very specific type of lighthouse keeper, wickies are in charge of maintaining the mechanical, clock-like structure of the giant oil lamp that wards off ships from disaster. However, as the second to the elder Thomas Wake (Dafoe), Ephraim discovers his job is actually glorified maintenance and domestic work while Wake keeps the joy and apparent ecstasy of operating the lamp light every night to himself.

As volatile and impenetrable as the rocky, treeless island itself, Dafoe’s Wake could be almost mistaken for caricature with his long, dense beard and corn-cob pipe which he perpetually puffs. Yet Dafoe is so miraculously entrenched in this salty dog that it’s nothing short of riveting the way he drinks every night and breaks the film’s long silences with an endless barrage of sailor jargon. These rants threaten to drown Ephraim just as much as the ocean itself. Worse still, it was only meant to be a four-week stint on the island, but as Ephraim fails to heed Thomas’ nautical superstitions, a grim nor’easter soon suggests their residency could be indefinite. And as the storm grows ever louder, so does both men’s drinking, not to mention Ephraim’s own visions of a beautiful mermaid inviting him into the deep.

As Eggers’ follow-up to his masterful debut film, The Witch, The Lighthouse arrives highly anticipated. Like this movie, that first effort drew on New England folklore and is, in my opinion, one of the greatest horror films ever made. Yet while sharing a taste for the grandeur of campfire folklore from some of America’s oldest regions, The Lighthouse is a much more ambitious effort and, by design, unknowable. Whereas that earlier film directly acknowledged the stakes by confirming a supernatural presence early on, The Lighthouse is more interested in wading into ambiguity.

Only a horror film in the vaguest sense, The Lighthouse is closer to reality-inverting mind-melters like Midsommar or Repulsion. Yes, there are mermaids and the overcast presence of forces as Lovecraftian as the tentacles Ephraim at least thinks he sees emanating from the light, but it is informed by the type of overbearing solitude that made sea monsters themselves a fevered sailor’s nightmare.

Consequently, The Lighthouse is very much a discomforting reverie where almost everything we view is suspect. Neither character is a reliable narrator, no matter how much they mumble about themselves via antiquated idioms through boozy breath. But it is the voices articulating those ravings that make The Lighthouse so haunting. Pattinson has grown into a captivating character actor over the years and provides a fine New England tenor to the kind of loveless despair he’s already portrayed in films like High Life. His is a portrait in discontent, which only serves to complement Dafoe’s tour de force as a one-legged seaman who never heard a shanty he didn’t like.

Their world, which is slathered in old timey superstitions and forgotten fables, is meticulously brought to life by the art direction and costumes, all of which Jarin Blaschke films in austere black and white so gloomy that it’s chilliness drifts from the screen and sets into your bones. These exact qualities, with an emphasis on historical authenticity even as we veer toward the surreal, further confirm Robert Eggers as one of the most impressive visual stylists of his generation and a director to always watch.

Are Winslow and Wake in hell, or perhaps at some way station en route to it? Is one a figment of the other’s imagination? Or is Eggers just exploring the mania of isolation, the violent urges that can come with oppressive loneliness and sexual repression out in the middle of nowhere? He leaves those questions to the audience, but The Lighthouse doesn’t feel like a tease, nor is it half-baked. It’s a bracing squall of a film, a briny delight that’s as amusing as it is entrancingly bizarre.

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