Out at the edge of the world, surrounded by an angry ocean, sits The Lighthouse, the subject of Robert Eggers’ captivating new period horror. This titular lighthouse is rude and rickety, craggy and seemingly sinking into the wet earth around it. It’s where we first meet Wake and Winslow (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson), the two forlorn seamen who arrive via ferry and watch as their tugboat taxi disappears into the fog. We are on our own, then, and Eggers uses all the tools in his belt to make this a harrowing showdown between two madmen. Here are two brilliant actors at different personal peaks of their respective careers, crossing paths, and it’s a blast to watch.
Pattinson’s Winslow is a young journeyman with a sketchy past, and he’s paired with Thomas Wake, a brillo-bearded former sea captain with all the grunts and snarls – and all the other body noises – of a sodden mariner gone to seed. Willem Dafoe is always worth seeing, but when he’s deep in the throes of genre the way he is here, there’s nothing quite like the energy he brings to the screen. This is a petrified seaman ripped from the pages of Herman Melville and soured by isolation and a casual sort of madness. Wake is in charge of this lighthouse, and of Winslow, and he treats Winslow like his personal slave, hauling coal, cleaning, repairing the roof, working like a dog while the salty supervisor gets drunk and threatens Winslow with docked pay.
The power struggle is one of several plates The Lighthouse has in the air. Some threads of this fraying knit sweater veer off into the supernatural, with some surprising mermaids and some pesky seagulls. Wake and Winslow bristle, then bond, and the rollercoaster heads into dark and dingy places that are often beautifully garish, thanks to Jarin Blaschke’s high contrast black-and-white photography. The sharp shadows and the 1.19:1 aspect ratio (it cuts off the sides of the screen, giving the film a boxed, early 20th-century look) set the claustrophobic tone. The score consists of moaning and wailing brass horns, and the soundtrack of the picture is heavy and industrial. You can feel the wind cut through these poor men as storms roll over them with little regard, and every belch and fart feels like it could creep into the theater with you.
But The Lighthouse is much more than visual parlor tricks, straightforward horror elements, and a few startling surprises that are best left unsaid. The push and pull between Pattinson – oddly resembling a 1920’s-era Gary Cooper at times – and Dafoe evolves and devolves as these men slip in and out of madness, typically fueled by endless booze. Much like he did with The Witch, Eggers is able to incorporate modern psychology with a classic cinematic setting, in a world that time has since forgotten. It may seem like The Lighthouse would work as a silent film, but that’s anything but the truth. This is a story that thrives on rich dialogue, and some strong monologues, from its dueling leads as they grapple with the gradual dissolution of their sanity. It isn’t as impenetrable as the dialogue in The Witch, but it certainly has its own authentic slang, and the characters have their own dialects that, once again, seem to be pulled from Melville’s nightmares.
The Lighthouse can be interpreted in a number of different ways, which appears to be another one of Eggers’ strength aside from strict attention to period detail. The journey of these two men takes on different shades of insanity if it’s taken at face value, or if it’s taken as an allegory for any number of things… that would potentially spoil the movie. This is a film that sticks to your sides like barnacles. It will be fun to revisit, some dark and stormy night down the road.