After 'The Witch', Robert Eggers returns with another vivid, nightmarish and utterly entrancing horror film — with help from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
Straddling the space where land meets sea, reaching high into the sky and emitting a glow that heralds safety, lighthouses have long ranked among humanity's most revered structures. They save sailors' lives by stopping them from crashing into craggy cliffs, and they're afforded not just respect as a result, but an almost ethereal, enchanting status. Also, every Australian who grew up since the 90s has dreamed of living in one, thanks to classic series Round the Twist. After watching Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson fart, fight, guzzle too much rum, growl at seagulls, masturbate and go steadily mad in one of the towering, alluring buildings in the nightmarish The Lighthouse, though, you might never look at these oceanside staples in the same way again.
Dafoe and Pattinson play cantankerous sea dog Thomas Wake and eager newcomer Ephraim Winslow — a seasoned 'wickie' who adores the light above all else, and an ex-woodsman hoping to work his way up in the world. When Winslow arrives for a four-week stint assisting the peg-legged Wake, he really should see his choppy voyage to the isolated New England island as a sign of things to come. (As the latest film by The Witch writer/director Robert Eggers, omens come with the territory.) Although forcibly chatty while swigging spirits with dinner, Wake is a hard taskmaster. He's also dour, mean, flatulent and drunk on power. Attending to the light is his responsibility alone, with Winslow saddled with the tough, dirty, literally shitty work — and warned not to mess with the seagulls fluttering around outside, which Wake believes to be the souls of dead seamen.
Scrubbing floors, carting heavy kerosene containers upstairs, emptying overflowing chamber pots — that's Winslow's new life day in, day out. Coupled with the constant stream of insults spat ferociously by Wake, it's enough to make him lose his grip on his sanity. And so, after finding a mermaid figurine in his bedsprings on his first night, then frequently fondling it with one hand while fondling himself with the other, the fledgling keeper grasps what solace he can. Then a storm sweeps in, stranding the two men inside with nothing but each other, alcohol and their bubbling acrimony for company. With a tempest swirling both in the sky and in the lighthouse, not even self-love can help brighten Winslow's stay on the island.
In The Witch, Eggers charted the slow implosion of a Puritan family in 17th-century America. In an insidiously unsettling movie made with exceptional technical prowess, he watched as fear and superstition — plus good ol'-fashioned bickering and a goat called Black Phillip — collapsed his characters' bonds. Jumping two centuries forward, swapping a remote farm for the titular structure and focusing on co-workers, The Lighthouse does much the same. That said, you could never accuse Eggers of just repeating himself. He's clearly deeply fascinated with the darkness that springs when folks spend too much time together in close quarters in fraught circumstances, and how such a scenario reveals humanity's true nature. He's also well aware how common a situation that is, and how it can play out in oh-so-many ways.
Here, shot in inky black-and-white, lit to stress every shadow and lapping up all shades of grey — a fitting colour for men stuck in limbo several times over — the above chain of events plays out in gripping, stunning, horrifying and even amusing fashion. Co-written by Eggers with his brother Max, the gothic-leaning narrative boasts its twists, shocks and secrets. Deconstructing masculinity while caught in a trippy daze, it offers more than its fair share of surprises. But how The Lighthouse conveys this tale is just as important as the story itself. Constrained within a square frame (deploying the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio that was popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s), this is a masterclass in claustrophobia, paranoia and mania. Jarin Blaschke's Oscar-nominated cinematography is fine-tuned to agitate and disturb, as is the needling score by fellow The Witch alum Mark Korven's score. The end result? A surreal, savage and purposefully aesthetically overwhelming portrait of psychological unraveling that feels more like it has been washed up in a bottle than crafted anew.
Thanks to Dafoe and Pattinson, there's no doubting that The Lighthouse was made in 2019 (and obviously not a century or so earlier). Eggers' casting instincts are superb — and not just because his monochrome visuals make the most of Dafoe's lively scowl and Pattinson's cheekbones. Spouting dialogue informed by real lighthouse-keepers' diaries, as well as by the writings of Moby Dick author Herman Melville, Dafoe barks and swaggers with frenzied energy. Glowering with growing internal rage, Pattinson's physically expressive performance is on par with the best silent film stars. The more this powerhouse duo snipe and snarl back and forth, the more they lure viewers into The Lighthouse's fever dream like a glowing beam — or like the tentacles that help make this already out-there movie even more eccentric, outlandish and utterly mesmerising.
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