“The Lighthouse” is a psychological nightmare of a film. This second feature from director Robert Eggers is a hypnotic, macabre, hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers who slowly succumb to the isolation-induced madness of a remote, mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
Salty old seaman Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and his underling Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) report for their month-long duty at a secluded lighthouse. Thomas barks orders at the younger man, commanding him to complete the most menial of chores like swabbing the floors and dumping the overflowing bathroom buckets. Forced to share cramped quarters in what could be the gloomiest place on Earth, the two men begin to butt heads and their combative relationship escalates.
Soon the flagrant belligerence morphs into madness, but are they really losing their minds? Could it be that supernatural forces are rising from the deep, or are the harrowing visions nothing more than an alcohol and solitude-induced nightmare?
The morbid story is based on historical maritime folklore and superstitions about mermaids, gulls, sailors, and sea monsters. It’s a thinking person’s horror film, yet it’s not horror in the traditional sense. There’s a building sense of dread that intensifies with every conflict and provocation, rising from a noxious masculinity that manifests in constant battles of the will (and self pleasure).
The film has a classic aesthetic and sophisticated grittiness, thanks to the brilliant work from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. The lighting choices are well-suited to the black and white palate, with the darkest of darks and brightest of lights creating an even more haunting atmospheric tone. The film is uncomfortable by design, with tight close-up shots of the actors and a boxy aspect ratio that feels claustrophobic, effectively mirroring the cramped living quarters of the lighthouse.
Pattinson and Dafoe are the perfect pair, two actors absolutely unafraid to go for it in the most outrageous way possible. Their primal, feral performances are nothing short of brilliant, and both are so bold and disturbing that the effects will linger with you long after the film is over. No actors are better suited to handle such a dark psychodrama.
The dialogue is poetic yet abrasive, with an old sea shanty cadence in every line. In one scene, Ephraim describes the way Wake smells and it’s so vivid, I felt like I was going to vomit. When’s the last time a film was able to physically effect you with mere words?
“The Lighthouse” lands squarely on the ideal side of weird and, although often maddening to watch, it happily never sinks to the most irritating levels of cinematic pretension that often suffocates most art house fare.