Directed by Robert Eggers
Amidst the troubled waters of a bad January, a month in which horror fans had both The Grudge and The Turning come out, The Lighthouse has loomed like a beacon of hope. As a follow-up to Eggers’ mini-masterpiece The Witch, this sophomore movie has much the same burden of high expectations as both Midsommar and The Nightingale did last year. But unlike either of those two, The Lighthouse arguably surpasses what its creator did the first time around. It also consolidates his place as one to watch, making for a shining example of what you can do with the right location and the right actors.
In respective order, those are a mysterious New England island in the 1890s, and the talents of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers tending to a desolate station. The ramshackle structure would be worth at least a money-back request on Air BnB, looking as stark as it is horrific: the worst place for four weeks of intense, back-breaking labour. During which time Pattinson’s secretive Ephraim Winslow does the grunt work of cleaning rooms, maintaining the rotational machinery, pushing wheelbarrows and emptying the piss-pots. No wonder he’s taking to the shed to whack off over the figurine of a mermaid to handle his frustration. While Dafoe’s injured veteran, and pissed of Captain Birdseye look-alike, Tom Wake, attends to the light itself. It’s a job, he’s unwilling to share and holds on to with ferocity. They don’t interact much at first, save for awkward meal times and the odd much-needed drunken catharsis complete with sea-shanties. But as their relationship gets increasingly strained, a badly timed tempest cancels their going home boat. Marooned, with no idea when he can get back, Winslow doubts the intentions of his new senior figure along with his own mental stability. It could be an occupational hazard, given the last assistant went mad. Or it could be Wake gas-lighting him. Perhaps it’s maybe even a mix of the two, and there’s something else about the island.
Like with The Witch, Eggers isn’t a fan of easy answers, and it’s never clear how literally we ought to take what Winslow sees. Often I’m put off when a film embraces ambiguity without furthering either the drama. Thankfully this is not something The Lighthouse does. Like Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers is adept at incorporating weighty symbolism and questions into a plot that’d still function perfectly without them. In this case, he adds Greek myths to his surreal mixture of Moby Dick does The Shining, with the odd dose of Lovecraftian maritime macabre. Admittedly I doubt many will get what’s real or not the first time – I sure as hell didn’t. Yet this isn’t actually a problem since it’s a perspective film designed to be felt as much as followed, and the viewers’ confusion will only match that of the characters. Paranoia, dread and uncertainty are what it’s about after all. Moreover, even when we lose track of what the heck just happened, we are never in any doubt about what it meant for the characters, who treat it as if it did: their emotional journeys are clear. On that point, it helps that both actors are so darn good, fearlessly getting to the core of their parts no matter how pathetic they look.
Pattinson delivers a career-best performance, playing Winslow with a physical and emotional intensity that makes him being cast as a sparkly vampire seem like a fever dream. His unravelling is painful to watch. Whereas we get the impression Defoe is already halfway there, as he goes effortlessly between misanthropic despair and spouting Miltonesque monologues. It helps that their roles are so rich, with each man having layers and layers to work with. They aren’t just battling the elements and each other, but also themselves. Not that the other would know, since they lie about a great deal including their backing stories. A real game underlines each scene they share together as we wonder which will break and turn on the other first: an anti-buddy movie to remind us Hell can be other people. Not that the alternatives are much better, with the lingering threats of loneliness and insanity being as potent as any killers. Plus there’s the creeping sense of inevitability about that whole thing, which I naively thought the director perfected last time. As such, while scholars may remember it for how skilfully Eggers combines the myths of Proteus (the keeper of knowledge) and Prometheus (who stole fire from the gods), fans will remember it first as an outstanding story.
It’s told well too. The Eggers brothers are obviously sticklers for historical accuracy in terms of the language used, and supposedly based much of the dialogue of old diaries. There’s such a beautiful mix of poetry and profanity to how they talk. Then we come to the aesthetic. Presented in Academy aspect ratio, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Lighthouse looks like a throwback. However, there’s nothing remotely kitsch or gimmicky about it. The cinematography is sublime, giving this noisy, phallic structure that’s taken over their life a foreboding appearance (which makes sense given it’s partly about hypermasculinity). Though it’s not big on gore, the few moments of body horror are cringe-inducing in the best way. The interiors are also exceptional. They are as claustrophobic as the sea is vast, and each grimy set looks meticulously designed to reflect the many period details. You can almost smell the salt and the many bodily substances. These add to a real pressure-cooker atmosphere, and as the clouds and wave surround the island, mimicking their raging tempers and tensions, it makes for an immersive viewing experience. The audio is as good as it gets too. Against the character’s silence, we hear every last scrape, creak or fart (something I hope Eggers added throughout to dismiss the elitist notion he makes “elevated” horror). There’s also the lighthouse’s foghorn, which we hear in the distance long before it even appears. It starts early and hardly ever lets up for the entire duration of the film, interrupting near enough scene to loudly torment the audience and characters alike. Birds call or peck the window, waves pound, and that darn thing just won’t shut up!
As I would expect many of you won’t when your friends, family and loved ones tell you to stop recommending the damn film. It’s probably got a limited run here, so if you can then get along to see it at your local arthouse cinema and sit as far away as possible from anyone else to fully take in the sensory experience. Better yet, wear as few clothes as possible and sit under the aircon so you’re shivering, and tip saltwater over yourself every few minutes (ok, just go during the day this weekend). Let it submerge you as only a great horror can. An early entry for the film of the year – if it’s not on there then 2020 will have to be almost miraculously good – and one I can’t wait to see again. January, to say you saved the best until last is an understatement. I’m glad you found your way.
The Lighthouse is out at cinemas now.