Premise: The hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
“Why did ye chase me up and down this rock with that axe?” Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake asks of Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow (or is it Thomas Howard?) late in The Lighthouse, the newest from director Robert Eggers, after his breakout success of The Witch. The question, on its face, isn’t all that significant. What makes it stand out – and emblematic of the entire film – is that, just minutes earlier, we see the exact opposite happening with Dafoe madly chasing Pattinson. Is Dafoe messing with Pattinson? Was it a drunken hallucination? Is Dafoe the crazy one, or is Pattinson (or both)? Throughout The Lighthouse, Eggers has the audience constantly question what he just showed us, as his characters descend deeper and deeper into madness.
But let’s rewind a bit to parse out how exactly we got to this point. The conceit of The Lighthouse is pretty simple: Dafoe and Pattinson arrive on a tiny island for a four-week tour of duty to maintain the titular lighthouse. There are no other structures or people on the island, no vegetation to maintain, and no animals to keep for company (except the ever-present flock of pesky seagulls, of course); which leaves just two men alone with their deranged thoughts. Throughout their four weeks together, the pair will engage in a see-saw of friendship and hatred towards each other after the weather forces them to keep inside most of the time.
Dafoe’s Wake was a naval man who had to retire after he got scurvy (or did he break his leg?). He mostly gives the orders and takes care of the lighthouse’s lens, which he expressly forbids Pattinson from seeing. Pattinson’s Winslow is the newcomer, who begins the film sticking strictly to the rules of the wickie (lighthouse keeper) handbook, which includes refraining from alcohol during his stint, and following all orders. The aforementioned storm loosens his code of ethics, and there are less and less times when we see him and he’s not stumbling down drunk. Maybe he’s using the alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with living with Dafoe. Maybe he’s always been a drunk. Eventually, he lets slip the true reason why he came to the wickie lifestyle after working in Canada as a lumberjack. Credit should go to Eggers and his brother Max, who wrote the script together, that Wake almost immediately guesses what Winslow has been hiding. As the two spend more and more time together, cabin fever (lighthouse fever?) predictably sets in and the two increasingly get at each other’s throats.
When The Witch debuted in 2015, praise was rightfully heaped on Robert Eggers for his thorough commitment to realism. Each detail felt lived in and authentic, from the dialogue to the sets that were built. For The Lighthouse, Eggers continues to raise his game – the crew even built a life-size lighthouse off the coast of Nova Scotia. Not only do both actors talk like they were plucked from the shores of New England at the turn of the century, but the minimalism of the island truly helps to feed the madness as it sets in. Shot by Jarin Blaschke on black and white film and given an almost square aspect ratio to evoke a more claustrophobic mood, The Lighthouse looks unlike any other movie you’ll see this year. Eggers and Blaschke take full advantage of the lack of running electricity to create some fantastically memorable images. Many scenes are only lit by a single light source, and the resulting shadows on Willem Dafoe’s face almost gives him an inhuman appearance. Pattinson at one point makes his way up the lighthouse stairs, where the lens is only visible through a metal grate. Eggers holds the camera on his face as he’s mesmerized by the glow, as patterns of light and darkness constantly dance across his face. He wants to be in the light, but just can’t break through.
The Lighthouse is a film where we can essentially guess the outcome from the beginning, but the process that Eggers takes to get there is full of fun and madness nonetheless. The story is mostly told from Pattinson’s perspective, so we see all of Winslow’s hallucinations and fantasies, though we’re never totally on his side. Is he justified in his accusations, or is he just a paranoid drunk? The cast list is literally three actors long: Dafoe, Pattinson, and Valeriia Karaman, who plays a mermaid, so there is no outside perspective to make any distinction between who is right and wrong. Of course, Pattinson and Dafoe give incredibly layered performances, one seeming to one-up and out-crazy the other. Both characters feel like real people with real grievances though; in lesser hands they could have easily slipped into caricature. And Eggers gives each actor plenty of meat to chew: Pattinson has a great scene where he drunkenly airs his criticisms, and Dafoe gives a terrifying yet exaggerated response.
Fans coming see an outright horror film may leave The Lighthouse a little disappointed; while there are plenty of disturbing images, most of the fear is internalized. Instead, almost every minute of the film has an almost dreadful atmosphere, where it feels like something will get markedly worse from one moment to the next. The distinctive foghorn blaring at all hours of the day probably doesn’t help matters much either. The “nature vs. nurture” debate is never brought up during the film, but maybe it applies to why these two people go insane. Were they crazy before arriving on the island, or did their close proximity to each other bring it out?