“The Lighthouse,” an expressionist nightmare captured in shadows and light by director Robert Eggers, is a period piece that pits Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson against the primal forces of paranoia and pathological behavior.
Set in 1890’s era New England on a remote rock that is home to a lighthouse and nothing else, the films sees “wickies” Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Efraim Winslow (Pattinson) thrown together to keep the giant oil lamp lit, warning seafaring boats of dangerous waters. Wake is a seadog, a craggy old character who has spent his life on the ocean or at the watchtower. “I’m damn well wedded to this light and she’s a better wife than any woman.” Winslow is a drifter who signed on for the job of apprentice when he heard you could make as much as $1000 a year. He’s replacing a man who was driven mad by the isolation. “He believed the lamp was enchanted,” says Wake. “that in the light was salvation for sins.”
The two men are oil and sea water. Winslow resents Wake’s stern ways. Wake feels the newbie is soft, unable to get the job done. On top of that, Winslow won’t swill whiskey with the older man at dinner and doesn’t understand the superstitions and customs that seafarers hold dear.
The strained atmosphere grows as Winslow begins to have visions. He sees a mermaid on the island’s rugged shoreline and wonders why Wake locks the door behind him whenever he tends the lamp. What is he hiding up there?
As the end of their four-week hitch looms the two men vie of control of the claustrophobic lighthouse, run out of booze and switch to kerosene, slowly driving one another mad. “The boredom,” says Wake, “makes seamen evil.” Well, that and booze, loneliness and toxic masculinity.
“The Lighthouse” has the feel of a silent movie. Eggers shoots grainy black and white in boxy old school 1.19:1 aspect ratio, drawing on the paintings of gothic painter Jean Delville and others to expertly creates the look and feel of nineteenth century New England mariner life. Madness seems to lurk in the shadows, in the inky corners of the frame, just out of sight. With a mermaid’s (Valeriia Karaman) siren song ringing in his ears Winslow inches toward insanity, bringing Wake along for the ride.
The actors are in virtually every frame and both fully embrace the odd story. DaFoe embodies Wake, looking like a Royal Doulton Old Salt mug come to life, speaking like a character right out of Melville. You can almost smell the rum breath as he berates Winslow, spitting out orders like the captain of a pirate ship.
Pattinson builds Winslow brick by brick. He starts the movie quietly, an inward character who doesn’t say much or do much except for the grunt work he’s ordered to do. Soon, however, his physical performance turns inward, exploring the manifestations of his madness and it is very powerful. His character has an arc that is both bizarre and powerful in its exploration of toxicity and loneliness. Winslow has several explosive scenes and the last image of him is one that, once seen, will not be soon forgotten.
Despite the presence of two very popular actors “The Lighthouse” is not exactly a mainstream movie. Instead it is more of an expertly rendered gothic slow burn that brings with it an atmosphere of dread shrouds the film like fog rolling into shore.