The Lighthouse: A Salty Sailor Fever Dream Full Of Nautical Madness
Four long years after his debut, The VVitch, acclaimed writer/director Robert Eggers returns with another haunting tale of disturbing terror — this time of the nautical variety. The Lighthouse pits Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in a twisted two-hander full of isolation, seagulls, sirens, secrets, superstitions, bodily fluid, booze, and flatulence. This searing force of nature will ring your bell in ways that films rarely do these days.
The film follows two lighthouse keepers (portrayed by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s. Faced with extreme solitude, they start to lose their sanity and become threatened by their worst nightmares.
With The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers creates a salty sailor fever dream descent into madness that builds and builds and builds until it eventually crescendos and crashes down on its audience with the power of a stormy wave. It can easily make a viewer feel like they’ve been struck in the head and lost at sea. It’s a challenging watch, full of open-ended questions/possibilities and heavy period dialogue, but its impecable craftsmanship, faultless performances, and singular vision make it a highly rewarding treat, whether it fully lands for you or not. There’s just something magical and mesmerizing about The Lighthouse’s mystical qualities, volatile interplay between characters, and surprising humor that make it an unpredictable delight.
There are strong notes of The Shining (which are also visible to us in The VVitch) — there’s even a bit where Dafoe chases Pattinson around with an axe — but The Lighthouse feels closer to Eggers’ debut more than anything else. Both The VVitch and The Lighthouse are smaller-scale period stories about madness explored in complex ways and set in an isolated setting with very few characters. They take painstaking effort to recreate long-gone periods as close as humanly possible (in the case of The Lighthouse, Eggers and company actually built a fully functioning 70-foot lighthouse, as well as all the other building in the film), draw inspiration from history and folklore, and include animals in ominously pivotal roles. The only difference is that The Lighthouse just goes harder and sustains its fury for longer; it’s more stylized, intense, engaging, and resonate.
The solitude of its setting is made abundantly clear in its opening sequence, as lighthouse keepers (or “wickies”), Thomas and Ephraim, arrive on the barren rock to relieve the previous keepers for a four-week stay of upkeep and maintenance. Encircled by nothing by vast, aggressive ocean and littered with sharp rocks and steep cliffs, we immediately see the peril surrounding the island and understand that our characters are at the mercy of the elements. Thomas (Dafoe) is the eldest of the two, and he wastes no time flexing his tenure and letting Ephraim know he’s in charge. Instead of sharing duties, Thomas quickly claims the light for his own and leaves Ephraim (Pattinson) to the menial tedium of the grunt work, which puts an added strain between them. The two men couldn’t be more different either; Thomas is an obnoxious, blathering drunk with the sea in his blood, and Ephraim is a man of few words with a background in being a timberman. Needless to say, tensions run high, but all hell breaks loose when a viscous storm leaves the two stranded with nothing but booze and each other.
As we learn more about the characters and their backstories, things become more complex and intentionally murky — in a good way. After awhile, it becomes hard to tell whether Ephraim is really losing his marbles or if Thomas is gaslighting him into thinking he’s crazy, and as time becomes more and more of a foreign concept, things also become increasingly gray. Each character seems to hold a secret, but only certain beans are spilled; however, at the center of everything is the abstract and elusive mystery of the light and what that may be. To Ephraim, it’s a sign of success; he needs the position as the lighthouse keeper as a means to pulling himself out of the hole that is his life. He sees it as his salvation, but Thomas selfishly wants to hold it for himself, treating it more like a woman than a job.
At its heart, it seems to be about belief systems and how people try to make sense of and control the chaos that’s around them — and that could mean other people, the very elements themselves, or even God. An entire article could be devoted to the many readings and potential meanings of the film — Prometheus and Proteus being the major keys to making deeper breakthroughs — but it’s really the performers that make The Lighthouse truly unforgettable. Pattinson and Dafoe are both game for anything, and they dive headfirst into the madness. Both actors deliver career-defining performances, engaging in screaming matches that morph into singing, dancing, and even cuddling, and they make a film with only two people (and a few seagulls) incredibly more compelling than you would initially think.
Dafoe is terrific as the salty lighthouse supervisor who drives Pattinson insane with his incessant farts — which are never not funny — but it’s Pattinson who emerges as the standout, proving yet again that he’s undoubtedly one of the greatest actors working today. Credit is not solely theirs though. Eggers, along with his brother Max who co-wrote the screenplay, provide beautifully lyrical rants and insults for them to hurl at one another. The characters relationship is so unhinged and sporadic that you never know what to expect, making the whole affair a wildly entertaining watch.
On a technical level, the film is phenomenal, full of tough camera moves that must brave the same elements of the characters. The use of aspect ratio is perfect here, as it allows vertical images to be framed with more immensity, and the black and white (or rather grayscale) look nails the feel, sealing in the musty, dusty, crusty atmosphere. The sound design is also incredible, and it berates the audience with the pounding smash of the elements that swirl around our characters, which really puts us in their headspace. The score by Mark Korven, who also did The VVitch, completes the ominous and foreboding atmosphere to perfection.
In our eyes, Eggers has outdone himself and gifted audiences a truly special film that will hopefully stand the test of time. With its mystery left unexplained and its meaning fairly elusive, it’s a film that could quite literally drive an audience mad searching for the enlightenment in the light, but its profoundly visceral and unsettlingly feral experience is too fantastic to really ignore. Everything lands with the force of a crashing wave, which will stun and baffle many, but as the fog clears, this nautical nightmare won’t wash away easily.
Recommendation: The film is a force of nature that you absolutely need to let roll over you in a theater setting. Even if it doesn’t work for you like it did for us, watching Dafoe and Pattinson spare is an unforgettable sight you won’t want to miss. If you need a hard sell, we got two words for yah: mermaid sex.
Rating: 5 drunken toasts outta 5.
What do you think? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!