It’s probably best to go into Robert Eggers’s latest film blind – although after seeing it, I’m happy to report, I still couldn’t tell you what precisely was going on.
Like his 2017 masterpiece The Witch, The Lighthouse transports the viewer into another time – and a very isolated place. The exiled Puritans of The Witch were, of course, cast out from their village and left to fend for themselves in the woods, their closest neighbours a bloodthirsty coven; here, Eggers’s haunted lighthouse-keepers are so far from civilization they might as well be on another planet.
Cloaked in shadow and choked by fog, the titular lighthouse makes The Shining’s forsaken Overlook Hotel seem downright cozy. Former sailor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) has been stationed here for many years; his new maintenance man Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a drifter, trying out life at sea after an ill-fated career in forestry. There’s the implication that Winslow’s running from something: “What’s a timberman want with being a wickie?” Wake asks suspiciously.
Winslow works himself ragged doing all the grunt work on the island, from painting the tower walls to emptying chamber pots, with Wake berating him for everything from dirt on the floor to rudeness towards seagulls. The two men only get along when they’re drinking, passing their evenings with reminiscences, dirty jokes, and tuneless sea shanties. Even these conversations turn volatile, bubbling over into reckless accusations and violence. “You’re not even human anymore,” Winslow sneers at the old man, perhaps fearing isolation will render him similarly intolerable.
There’s something odd about the island, as well. Time progresses inconsistently (at one point, Wake insists two weeks have passed when Winslow has only perceived one day), nature itself seems to be hostile, and Winslow is tormented by split second visions of grasping tentacles and vicious mermaids – delusions that also afflicted his predecessor.
The plot here is slight, deliberately so: Eggers has forsaken coherent momentum in service of immersive disorientation.
The atmosphere of The Lighthouse is so strong, it could perhaps carry the movie even if everything else were lacking. Jarin Blaschke’s black-and-white photography is stunning, with lingering shots of cramped quarters and eerie, mist-drenched rocks giving way to horrific hallucinations. The film’s jarring 1.19:1 aspect ratio initially feels counterproductive; for the first few scenes, you feel like you’re watching a movie, perhaps some haunted documentary recorded in the early days of film and hidden away ever since. But soon enough, the black bars on either side of the screen lend themselves to an omnipresent sense of claustrophobia, becoming indistinguishable from shadow. Mark Korven’s foreboding score mirrors the incessant droning of the foghorn, suggesting certain doom even when no immediate threat is apparent.
The acting here is also marvellous. Willem Dafoe is perfectly cast as a cantankerous – and manipulative – old lighthouse keeper, prone to verbose toasts, tall tales and elaborate mythological curses. And Robert Pattinson does a lot with his sparse dialogue as Wake’s cagier assistant, segueing effortlessly from sullen silence into ugly, drunken incoherence. Eggers strength lies in how fully he inserts into his worlds, and Dafoe and Pattinson complement his period authenticity by disappearing into their characters.
Egger’s camera is as unreliable a narrator as his protagonists. In one scene, Wake matter-of-factly accuses Winslow of attacking him with an axe – when in fact we’ve just seen Wake do that. Is Winslow imagining things, or is Wake gaslighting him? And why? Or is there some more sinister scheme going on, far beyond the comprehension of either man?
The Lighthouse lends itself well to speculation, deliberately withholding any firm answers as to what is going on or what it all means. (For what it’s worth, I think that Wake and Winslow are the same man at war with himself, and that the island is some form of purgatory. And the light – well, who knows?).
The Lighthouse is a messier and more mysterious film than The Witch, its ambiguities offering different pleasures than its predecessor’s more pointed satire. (I was reminded of Eggers’s fellow folk horror aficionado Ari Aster, who followed up his cleverly plotted Hereditary with the more listless – and much more ambitious – Midsommar). It hasn’t supplanted The Witch as my favourite horror movie of the decade, but it’s equally well-crafted and just as absorbing; a strange, bleak, nightmare that will haunt you well after you’ve left the theatre.
Title: The Lighthouse
Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriters: Robert Eggers & Max Eggers