★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Isolation, misery, toil, secrets, and madness. Just another day for Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in the Robert Eggers brilliantly bleak seascape The Lighthouse.
There is bleak. And there is Robert Eggers period piece black and white chilly, soaked-to-the-bone bleak. First off, a bit of a warning. This is not a conventional horror movie. In fact, it falls squarely into the horror or not grey area of filmdom. The Lighthouse is a masterfully crafted period drama with bravura performances by two men. Robert Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, a man with a troubled past looking for a new lease on life by taking a job at a remote post, far away from what haunts him. Willem Dafoe is Thomas Wake, an old sea dog, a salty “Wickie” or lighthouse keeper, who seems to have stepped right out of a Herman Melville tale.
The two men are assigned on a remote New England island lighthouse outpost, for four weeks of hard labor in the worst conditions that the Atlantic Ocean can throw at it. The constant moan of the foghorn and the sweeping gaze of the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens are ever-present. Initially, Thomas bullies Winslow around, tasking him with all sorts of menial but essential tasks around the island, and he is a strict taskmaster. Ephraim works hard in brutal conditions and gets no appreciation or respect from the older man.
Isolation does strange things to men under duress, and Thomas has probably been at this too long. He locks himself upstairs and gazes longingly at the lighthouse lamp, worshiping it and imbuing it with all sorts of Freudian imprinting. Like many old sailors, he is a man of great superstition, an acolyte of Triton, and also an unrepentant drunk.
Ephraim also allows the environment, conditions, and back-breaking labor to get to him. He becomes obsessed with visions of a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), his sexual fantasies of sirens explicitly shown. The mermaid lures him in and her spectacular genitalia provides one of the more eyebrow-raising moments of the film. Yep, this is how they do it. Ephraim’s loneliness is taken to its logical conclusion. Is she real? Maybe, as the legendary mermaid tales of them seducing and imperiling seamen is a story standard going all the way back to Homer, preying on weak souled men. Is she a figure of his madness, or is she the conduit for the madness? His fantasies get intertwined with his personal shame, and the horrors of death and primal powers. It is gloriously ambiguous.
Ephraim is also badgered by the seagulls on the island. Ephraim is fed up with them heckling him and getting in his way. But, he is warned, “Bad luck to kill a seabird!” declares Thomas. Of course, he pays that warning no heed, and when Ephraim turns his rage on a gull, all the bad Omens come flooding out. Needless to say, that savagery against the seagull will bring bad tides to his doorstep.
The relief boat fails to show, effectively stranding the two of them on the island indefinitely. A monster storm is also brewing, and due to make their miserable lives now very fragile. And perhaps most dangerously, Thomas uncovers a crate full of booze. What could possibly go wrong? Jealousy begets lies, and lies beget fighting, and if these two needed anything else to go wrong it’s their tenuous frenemy relationship erupts to the danger point. Eggers punctuates this feature with a brutal conclusion, and in the end, you feel hollowed out from the experience.
I will admit that I had thought this was going to become a Lovecraftian epic, like The Shadow over Innsmouth or that some sort of elder god would be revealed. There are glimpses and suggestions of such things… as we do get some tentacle action, but that’s really a side play. This is about the frailty of the human spirit and the weakness of damaged men under severe pressure.
There is a bit of fun one-upmanship as to which actor will chew the most scenery. Both actors go to the brink of overacting, Eggers, a fan of authentic dialects (Like the ye olde English from The VVitch, this time bestowing a New England fisherman’s accent on Dafoe, and a specific Maine dialect for Pattinson. These two actors go full method and provide physical wild-eyed performances. This would male a great stage play, as so much of the plot is powered by the banter and physicality between the two men.
Eggers also has gifted each of them with character arcs worth investing in. Their relationship waxes and wanes, as the power dynamic constantly shifts between the two. Thomas is the senior member, and the actual boss, but Ephraim is younger, bigger, and stronger, and you can feel the tension of when that reality will come to a head. But the movie also allows the two men to bond, riotously singing and dancing together, hugging it out and then punching each other until both are concussed. They are the only company that they have, and they can’t even run away from each other. This is a job as a prison for two.
Each of them has stories that come out as confessions, leading to the calling card line from the trailer from Thomas,
Why’d you spill yer beans?!Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe)
I was wondering what that line meant when registered out of context in the trailer, but it is quite meaningful within the story. The beans, shall we say, are significant.
The movie, as all Eggers movies seem to be, is a study in authenticity. They built the fabulous maritime sets, and they look like the real thing. (Fooled me!) They managed to get a real Fresnel lighthouse prism lens, and the lighthouse is actually capable of handling the inclement weather. Good thing too, as all the raging Newfoundland storms were real. The thunderous surf was real, and the torrential rain was real. No rain sprinklers were required… and it shows. True dedication from all involved, cast AND crew. What a shoot that must have been.
The gorgeous black and white cinematography proved to be Oscar Nomination worthy. The unique aspect ratio of 1.19:1 (nearly square), which was how old 1930’s films were shot, prior to the more cinematic widescreen we are used to today. And for more authenticity, they used 35 mm black and white double X-5222 film with Baltar camera lenses, which were used by filmmakers from 1918 to 1938. Again, authenticity. This is a film school junkie’s wet dream of a production.
The biggest downside of the movie is that it only dabbles in the supernatural aspects, suggesting and hinting at something more. I would like to have seen Eggers push that element forward a little bit more. He set the table but never put the food on the plates in that regard. It did a very good job setting up the dominoes to fall, relative to the main character story arcs, but it was SO CLOSE to being that horror masterpiece for me. I would like to have seen more of the supernatural influence than say… the booze as the instigator. We get a few tentacles, but those tentacles seem to be manifestations of the character’s secrets rather than a real tangible elder being. The same thing that holds true for the VVitch, holds true for this movie. The demons are very much internal to the characters, and the forces of evil are very judiciously implemented.
It is so wonderful to have a visionary director like Eggers continuing to produce heady and interesting genre fare. His dedication to the details and the craftsmanship in his film making is rare. Are his movies easily comprehensible? No. Are they action-packed crowd-pleasing killing sprees? No. They are subtly nuanced dramas that through their authenticity hammer home powerful themes. His films transport you to another time and place, and the characters in his stories are fully fleshed out and deeply sympathetic. Eggers belongs in the first rank of indie genre directors alongside fellow auteurs Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Ana Lily Amirpour, Alex Garland, Issa Lopez, and Panos Cosmatos… all of whom are still young in their careers and capable of proving that horror movies can be works of art.
The Lighthouse is now available for rent streaming on Amazon. It is rated R for some awkward sexual situations, massive alcohol consumption, and a bit of brutal violence (including a nasty bit of violence against animals)