My Verdict | ★★★★★
Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse offers no comfort in its growing maelstrom of haunting disquiet and startling horror. The director-writer’s latest film is churning with ancient folklore, bodily fluids, mariners’ superstitions and repressed fantasies. It’s a masterfully atmospheric mood-piece; utterly entrancing and disturbing.
In the late 1800s, two lighthouse keepers- ‘wickies’ in ‘old-sea-dog’ speak- are assigned to a remote spit of an island to mind the lighthouse for a month. Tom (Willem Dafoe) is a seasoned veteran of the lamp, grizzled and cruel, save for when he takes his liquor at supper. His younger companion Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is new to the monotonous, yet gruelling work. Laconic and secretive, he’s clearly resentful of his lower status and barely able to stomach his superior’s tedious meal-time toasts, mariners’ clichés and persistent farts.
As the weeks wear on and weather grows wetter and wilder, Winslow starts to notice strange goings-on around the lighthouse. Are they brought about by the inane tedium of isolation or are they frightening omens of darker forces? And what role does old Tom have as he remains reclusively clinging to the top of the lighthouse?
Eggers keeps you appropriately treading water with these questions. The director and co-writer Max Eggers spin a yarn on private torments and obsessions which are slowly loosened from their moorings. Initially adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s unfinished manuscript tale from 1894, the Eggers brothers dredge up the primordial, the uncanny and the ethereal- inspired by the maritime-themed works of Herman Melville, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and H.P. Lovecraft.
Yet it’s the telling of this tale through Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography that really enraptures and entraps you. The grainy grey-scale, chiaroscuro lighting (deep shadows cast by the lamp-light) and condensed aspect ratio are only the start of it. Like Hitchcock and Kubrick, giving place a presence is often enough to beguile or frighten us. In The Lighthouse, Eggers takes our imagination to darker depths. The immersive, terrifying soundscape from Damian Volpe and dissonant score from Mark Korven only intensifies this plunge.
From the storm-swept outcrops, foaming rock pools and seagull infested skies to the continual bursts of the foghorn (like a clarion call), Eggers and Blaschke utilise the natural elements of the environment to evoke and overbear. A murky underside is also stirred up- the jolting images of floating faeces, writhing tentacles and seductive yet dangerous sirens (Valeriia Karaman) that slither into Winslow’s fantasies and nightmares.
Rising out of this flotsam and jetsam is the lighthouse itself- transformed into an otherworldly, bewitching structure through the slender camera-movement up its spiral staircase and bathing in the endless circular movements of refracted light. Here, director and cinematographer make the eponymous building the third performance in this two-hander.
Inside, Dafoe and Pattinson wrestle with each other, often literally at times. They toss between mirth, bitterness and rage. Continuing his recent career renaissance after The Florida Project and At Eternity’s Gate, Dafoe’s gritty old seaman is unnervingly magnetic, though also unexpectedly amusing. Not only does he master the mariner’s dialect and sermonising, reminiscent of Melville’s Ahab (a parody Winslow notices with disdain) but also captures that darker, desperate fixation. Regardless of a wobbly Maine accent, Pattinson more than matches him with his own brooding manner and despairing determination. When these two really go crackers, it’s often unbearably tense and unpredictable.
It might wade in shallow waters thematically (it possesses none of Melville’s sustained social critiques) but The Lighthouse certainly drowns you in unease. By the end, my skin-crawled, heart jumped and its eerie visions clung to my mind afterward.
Needless to say, lighthouse-keeping is out for me!