The wait for Robert Eggers’ latest foray into cinematic madness, The Lighthouse, has been, in a word, excruciating. The writer/director’s first feature film, The Witch, stands as one of the most uniquely unsettling psychological horror films to ever grace theater screens. That film shows a filmmaker who can communicate a strong sense of place, while also drenching his audience in dread and fear of the unknown.
Eggers brings that same period authenticity and atmospheric storytelling to The Lighthouse, which tells the story of two lighthouse keepers who slowly (or quickly? He deliberately leaves the timeline ambiguous with this one) lose their minds on a remote New England island at the tail end of the 1800s.
Acted with commitment and gusto by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse proves Eggers is anything but a one-hit-wonder, taking the paranoia-laden atmosphere that he perfected in his first film and crafting something much odder, but equally unsettling.
Pattinson and Dafoe star as our two lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wake, who soon after arriving to their island learn that they aren’t the most compatible roommates. The film begins with an eerie shot on the deck of a ship, as the fog clears and the titular lighthouse slowly comes into view. The violent churning of the engine competes with the wailing tone of the lighthouse’s alarm, both of which combine with the masterfully composed score by Mark Koven to create an atmosphere that is practically signalling impending danger right off the bat.
Upon arrival, Thomas Wake makes it clear (as clearly as his thick sailor dialect can allow) that as he is Winslow’s boss, only he is allowed to tend to the light in the lighthouse. Winslow reluctantly tends to his menial duties, unprepared for the obnoxious, incessant blaring of the alarms or the annoying seagulls that can’t seem to get out of his way.
Days and nights go by, and time starts to feel more and more unclear. Are Winslow’s visions of mermaids real or in his head? Will Wake’s unceasing farts and wretched smell become too much for Winslow to handle? Let’s just say that when Winslow’s desire to witness the mysterious light becomes more fervent, you can guarantee that all hell is going to break loose on this rock.
The Lighthouse is just as much an actor’s showcase as it is Eggers’, and since Pattinson and Dafoe are the only characters with speaking roles, they are given so much to work; and the actors clearly relish in the material, giving positively deranged and fiercely committed performances.
Pattinson has the larger arc as Winslow, a man with a secret or two who isn’t quite ready for the conditions that he has put himself in. He is undoubtedly an unreliable narrator, and watching him go mad plays in sync with our disorientation in seeing things from his perspective. And Pattinson plays both the secretiveness and the madness extremely well.
And while the two actors carry this film hand-in-hand, Willem Dafoe is operating on such a level that just can’t be understated. He delivers every line and monologue of his with such conviction and authenticity, and his sailor accent is as comical as it is precise. It’s one of those right-actor-for-the-right-role instances that pays off immensely, and it would not be surprising in the least if Dafoe ends up being a frontrunner come Oscar season.
Both of the performances are greatly enhanced by the environment they inhabit, which is shot in 1:19:1 aspect ratio and with stark black-and-white cinematography from Jarin Blaschke. The practically square frame adds to the sense of claustrophobia with these characters sharing such a small setting. Blaschke and Eggers very particularly find the most evocative ways to shoot The Lighthouse, calibrating every light, shadow, and composition for maximum eeriness. The set, which was built from scratch with camera movements and lighting in mind, feels very tactile and immersive.
And the level of immersion and atmosphere that Eggers achieves makes the ensuing madness all the more intoxicating. It admittedly takes a good 15 minutes to get settled into the type of storytelling on display, and to some, the film may end up feeling like all atmosphere with no narrative purpose. But once The Lighthouse takes hold of you and brings you in, it becomes an experience that is hard to define, but even harder to shake once it’s over.
The Lighthouse is rated R, and it expands into more theaters this weekend. All images courtesy of A24.