I walked into The Lighthouse fully expecting to experience varying degrees of torment and beguilement from Robert Eggers, the warped mind that brought us The Witch. I was prepared to allow myself to succumb to the demented madness the trailers promised. And succumb I did, because The Lighthouse is totally and utterly bugnuts. Stark raving mad. A claustrophobic, arthouse, psychological horror that celebrates the twisted beauty in ugliness. A deranged two man act that drags Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe to a drunken watery hell.
Beautifully shot on a constrictive and monochromatic 1.19:1 frame, the film imprisons audiences on a foggy, isolated island in the late 19th century with lighthouse keepers Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Dafoe). From the first unsettling seconds, we quickly understand that this pairing, in this place, can only lead to one dark eventual path. An industrial foghorn blasting sinistrous tones into the surrounding nothingness, a constant reminder to both the characters and viewers that the abyss awaits.
As both men tend to their duties, Winslow being forced to endure the harshest and most painstaking of tasks, we slowly learn that their servitude to this tall-standing beacon of luminosity may never end, and they may be waiting for replacements that will never arrive. It is at this point that students of the dramatic arts may cotton on to what Robert Eggers’ secret intentions are. The Lighthouse isn’t just some odd arthouse mindbender, it’s actually a macabre, surrealistic reimagining of Samuel Beckett’s famed play Waiting for Godot. With this knowledge in hand, the film’s oddness and nightmarish atmosphere begin to take on a different form. If Winslow and Wake truly are reinterpretations of Vladimir and Estragon, then The Lighthouse assumes the role of a purgatorial guardhouse. Lines that discuss characters as “god fearing” become more potent. The light itself takes on a far grander meaning. An existential angst bursts through every orifice of the film, like stormy waves crashing and engulfing the shoreline.
Eggers, a young director dedicated to period authenticity, again pays close attention to his production design (handmade wooden sets and props), costuming and more importantly, his stylised language and dialects. The cinematography itself attempts to recreate the orthochromatic aesthetic from 19th century photography. The narrowing framing a tool to restrict our view and withhold key information from the audience.
For the second film in a row, Eggers’ meticulous background research into folklore and mythology, has enabled him to birth yet another monstrous fable. You can easily see the filmmaker assuming the role of fireside bard, inviting people to hear the tale of two seamen and the lighthouse.
“Legend has it that it’s bad luck to kill a seabird, as they are thought to carry the souls of dead sailors.”
Both Dafoe and Pattinson pledge their mind, body and soul to their oppressive entrapment (both in the world of the film and the production that formed it) and the mastermind behind it all. Their descent into lunacy is riveting cinema and, at times, darkly comedic. Dafoe’s Wake, complete with staunch Captain Ahab beard, is both cartoonish and Shakespearean. He’s a salty, weathered, sea dog. A sea monster in his own right. Drunkenly insecure about his lobster cooking at one moment, yet skilled at spouting agitational monologues the next. His standout moment involves one such soliloquy that takes place while being entombed by dirt and rock.
Likewise, Pattinson continues to impress in his post-Twilight career. The Cosmopolis, Good Time and High Life actor starts his performance restrained and docile, yet his eventual eruption is mesmerising. His guilt-laden eyes suggest he’s harbouring an inner darkness that even this light cannot touch. While Dafoe gets the theatrics, Pattinson gets to wander through vile and violent dreamscapes and hallucinations that will make some audiences seasick.
For the vast majority of cinema goers, I simply cannot recommend this film. But for those keen for a cinematic challenge, The Lighthouse provides a unique nautical experience into the murky waters of a man’s soul. You will either find it a delicious piece of cinematic poetry or pretentious gibberish. And some of you may think it’s both.