The Lighthouse seeps into your bones with the chill of the sea wind. Stunningly directed by Robert Eggers from a script he wrote with his brother, Max, and shot in black and white in the boxy aspect ratio common in the silent era, The Lighthouse is set in the 1890s on a deserted island off the coast of Maine. It’s there, with the lighthouse looming above them, that extraordinary actors Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson duel with each other — as well as a raging storm, demon rum, masturbatory fantasies and mystical portents (a seagull, a mermaid) not easily explained away.
The astonishing Dafoe crushes the role of Thomas Wake, a pipe-chewing old salt who makes life hell for Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), the apprentice who learns that a few weeks alone with Thomas is a recipe for madness. For starters, Thomas won’t let his protégé anywhere near the lighthouse beam, sticking him instead with scut work, such as chamber-pot cleaning and making the lighthouse “sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker.” What’s Thomas hiding? Patience, mateys. Thomas farts up a storm while Ephraim jerks off to a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), who may or may not be real. Both actors, with facial hair as thick as their accents, dig into their roles like beggars at a feast. Thomas drinks with a vengeance, turning to kerosene when the rum runs out. As you can imagine, none of this does much for the pair’s mental stability.
We knew Eggers was the real deal in gothic horror with his 2015 feature, The Witch, a crafty debut set in 1630 New England and brimming with beauty and terror. In The Lighthouse, Eggers once again astutely mixes the rational and its opposite, pulling us into the supernatural with subtle cunning and meticulous attention to period detail. (The lighthouse in the film was custom built from scratch.) For inspiration, the Eggers brothers drew on the writings of Herman Melville, Sarah Orne Jewett and the diaries of 19th century seamen. The language is as fulsome and fierce as the sea, even in insults. “You smell like curdled foreskin,” says Ephraim, as Thomas calls on the Greek god Triton to vent his rage. Thanks to indelible images caught by Jarin Blasche’s restless camera and Damian Volpe’s resonant sound design — that foghorn! — the audience is caught up in the film’s claustrophobic grip.
Even if this head trip is stronger in atmospherics then it is in substance or tying up loose ends, the film’s primal performances carry it to glory. Dafoe truly is a force of nature. And Pattinson builds his role by gradations to achieve an impressive cumulative force. In between the Twilight saga and his upcoming The Batman, Pattinson has found enough indie cred in films such as The Lost City of Z, Good Time, High Life and The King to hold his own with his formidable costar. You’d have to search hard to find a movie this hypnotic and haunting.