Director Robert Eggers broke onto the scene with 2015's The Witch. If you thought he couldn't make a film eerier or more atmospheric than that, Eggers wants you to hold his beer, because he's got The Lighthouse up his sleeve. I'm not entirely sure what I saw, but I know that I loved every second of it and can't wait to see it again. This is a bold, risk-taking work from a true cinematic visionary.
The story is set in the 1890s and revolves around two lighthouse keepers on a very remote New England island. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is a veteran “wickie” who loves his booze, enjoys jovial chit-chat, and can be a stickler for rules. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a newbie – a man of few words who seems to be holding some inner torment. Forced by Wake to do most of the unpleasant grunt work in keeping the lighthouse operable, Winslow is repeatedly pestered by a seagull. Wake advises him not to harm the gull because he believes the birds contain the souls of deceased sailors. Winslow doesn't listen and soon bad luck begins befalling the men. Essentially, the movie is a 109-minute hallucinatory nightmare as events spiral down into increasingly disturbing depths.
The Lighthouse is unlike any other movie in recent memory. It's shot in black-and-white. Not the beautiful black-and-white of Roma or Cold War, but a stark black-and-white. Eggers uses a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, meaning the image is square and claustrophobic. The performances are highly stylized rather than realistic. Dialogue is old-timey, with Wick, in particular, saying things like, “Yer fond of me lobster, ain't ye?” There's a mermaid, and something with tentacles, and an oft-farting Willem Dafoe. The sound design is practically a character in itself; there's always ticking, crashing waves, or the sound of a foghorn on the soundtrack.
Eggers plunges you into this nightmare, so that even mundane-seeming moments – like Winslow painting the exterior of the lighthouse – take on an ominous quality. What all of it means is left to the viewer to decide. Some definite themes emerge in the film, the psychologically devastating impact of isolation being a prime one. Both men seem to go mad the longer they're stranded on that island.
At the same time, a certain ambiguity pervades the story. You can put the pieces together in a number of ways, particularly when it comes to the spooky ending. I see The Lighthouse as being about a metaphorical hell where people are sent as punishment for their sins. The hitch is that one of the characters has been condemned to hell and the other may have an altogether different purpose there. Your read may be different. That's part of the fun. Eggers gives everyone the same clues, plus a few basic explanations, then lets them interpret as they see fit.
There is so much richness on display that seeing The Lighthouse more than once is probably necessary to digest all of it. What greater compliment could there be? Dafoe and Pattinson do superb work, creating intense, exaggerated characters whose every dark (and often darkly funny) impulse comes vividly to life. They're alone, usually drunk, and racing toward madness.
We're on the ride with them, and it's nothing short of exhilarating.
out of four
The Lighthouse is rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.