Robert Eggers returns four years after The Witch with his 4:3 aspect ratio, black-and-white seadog tale The Lighthouse. Two brilliant actors, one rotating fog-cutter, insidious paranoia. If you thought The Witch was a test of patience, Eggers doubles down on the slowest of period piece burns with no desire to speed forth. The Lighthouse is all about mood, performative brilliance, and the madness that puts two men at professional odds while waves crash all around them. Eggers is no doubt a technical wizard when it comes to cinematic technique and production design, but expect even less mainstream appeal this time around.
Turn back, ye whose stomachs form a sailor’s knot at the mention of “arthouse” filmmaking. ‘Tis choppy monochromatic waters with no respite from broody scowls in sight.
Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) has just begun a four-week stint as Thomas Wake’s (Willem Dafoe) newest lighthouse caretaker. Thomas spends his days basking in the light’s glow while Ephraim is tasked with mundane chores. Shoveling coal into flames, mending shingles, painting walls while Thomas holds him “steady.” Neither men know the comforts of technology given how The Lighthouse takes place in the 1890s, as Ephraim’s only purpose is labor and sleep. It’s enough to drive a man crazy, being worked like a horse in such isolation. As we watch Ephraim spin out of sanity during a thunderous storm that locks both men inside, “crazy” is just the beginning.
A24 will release The Lighthouse on October 18th, most likely in a limited to medium theater capacity. Here are three reasons to hop aboard this voyage into the hypnotic, disorienting, and divisive.
1. Pattinson And Dafoe With Career-Best Performances
The Lighthouse is a performative siren’s song “sung” by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, both of whom act their liquor-soaked butts off. Two men stranded with only themselves and their demons, extrapolated by contained hysteria. It’s the late 1800s – no television, no pastimes, nothing but grunt work and “Captain” Thomas bossing Ephraim around. Pattinson and Dafoe are challenged to carry almost a two-hour movie with nothing but their weathered faces, which they indeed accomplish. Pattinson’s John F. Kennedy accent and conspiracy obsessions spike tension as Dafoe plays the gruff, immovable tyrant who pushes his every button (and farts a lot).
It’s a tune that whimpers as time goes on. Eggers’ screenplay (co-written by brother Max) is a repetitive cycle of killing boredom, gaslighting, and mistrust among two coworkers. As tempers drift in the open, masked by boozy mess hall dance routines and incoherent mumbling, Eggers’ vision descends into blurred reality. Intriguing, perplexing, but drawn thinner than taffy pulled three feet apart. Pattinson’s exaggerated fixation on mermaid lore and Dafoe’s scallywag brashness carries scene after scene, holding steady as the film threatens to dully fall to pieces. The Lighthouse is a masterclass in tension, even if Eggers has trouble justifying such a simplistic perspective on unsavory solitude.
2. We Were Robbed Of Robert Eggers’ Nosferatu (So Far)
Mr. Eggers manipulates light and darkness within the monochromatic boundaries of The Lighthouse as only a technical mastermind could devise. Close range shots are crosshatched by thick shadows across character faces as to accentuate, for example, Dafoe’s darting, crazy eyes. There’s no color palette for contrast, just varying depths of blacks and greys. Eggers wields these so-called limitations with artistic bravado, showing more command of optical detailing than anything James Cameron’s latest technological invention could challenge.
I make the Nosferatu comment above because the way Eggers frames his human characters makes them seem vampiric. Shrouded in darkness by virtue of nightfall or oil lanterns providing their dilapidated shack’s only illumination, barely enough to reveal who’s talking. It’s perfect for dark Transylvanian castles and chambers but works equally magnificently on a jagged clump of stones. As Eggers accomplished in The Witch, he once again revitalizes a bygone era by heightening the art of generational simplicity. Tension built on lore and superstition, visuals inviting besides a lack of complication. You can practically smell the foul stench of overfilled bedpans and Dafoe’s mangy beard, a testament to Eggers’ inarguable design forte.
3. It’s Unique, That’s For Damn Sure
You won’t see anything like The Lighthouse this, next, or maybe ten years from now. Eggers’ fascination with character-driven despicableness is loaded with poetic sailor’s insults and trickery of the mind. Slithery aquatic monster tentacles are either a figment of imagination or proof that something wicked calls Thomas’ lighthouse home. Ephraim’s desires and alcoholism drive an “imprisoned” deckhand into a spiral of morose disdain for taking orders, at least until the next bottle of alcohol arrives. Eggers’ sophomore experiment is fascinating, provocative, but wades in the shallows far too long before diving deep into enchanted waters.
This might sound crass, but there’s a true metaphor here: The Lighthouse loves the smell of its own farts. It’s an actual plot device throughout the film’s duration and works to sniff out the film’s most pungent offenses. Eggers loves every second of his film, as he should. It’s evident in the way scenes linger, draw out, and how both lead actors are allowed to freely meander through boatsman talk without intrusion for either too long or nowhere near long enough. Audiences will be split down the middle betwixt those who’re captivated by acid-trip alcohol dazes and pent up sexual frustrations, versus those who’ll be bored enough to walk the plank mid-screening. If you thought The Witch was a drag, be wary of The Lighthouse’s warming glow. A film to be studied in graduate film programs, not chosen for a raucous Friday night popcorn viewing.
The Lighthouse is in theaters on October 18th.