The Lighthouse looks, sounds, and feels unlike any film in recent memory. Director Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his haunting 2015 debut, The Witch, is a masterpiece of claustrophobic horror. Two frazzled lighthouse keepers battle each other and the doldrums as they slowly descend into a paranoia-fueled delirium. It’s a grueling, unflinching character drama that so expertly mixes the supernatural with human frailty that you’re never quite sure what is real and whatis imagined. A triumph of performance and production, The Lighthouse is a profound allegorical reminder that no man is an island.
Somewhere off the coast of 1890s New England, two keepers (or “wickies”, as their called) disembark for their tour of duty at a remote lighthouse. The older veteran wickie is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), a vulgar man who howls obscene soliloquies of Shakespearean proportion as he slowly drowns in a bottle of booze. The younger man is Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a square-jawed, tight-lipped mystery wrapped within a wiry frame. Thomas is the quintessential salty dog, spinning wild tales of wickies possessed by delusions of mermaids and phantom fog horns. Winslow, a former lumberjack, cares only about evading the troubled past that’s forever nipping at his goulashes.
Ever the antagonist, Thomas refuses to relinquish the lighthouse beacon to Winslow. “The light is mine!” he bellows, relegating Winslow to the brutal physical detail of hauling coal, cleaning the cistern, and lugging kerosene to the top of the lighthouse. Winslow isn’t a laborer by nature, and so his resentment quickly escalates. What is Thomas doing up there, hoarding the beautiful light all to himself?
One night, an enraged Winslow ascends the 70-foot tower and catches a glimpse of Thomas’ naked writhing body — and what might be a flapping tentacle. Eggers’ ingenious storytelling makes it equally possible that Winslow is hallucinating — or Thomas is actually a mystical sea creature.
The opening frames of The Lighthouse are so stark and murky that you question whether the film is shot in black and white or the island itself is really that grey. Partially filmed on the treacherous Cape Forchu off the coast of Nova Scotia, Eggers guarantees maximum authenticity by constructing a functional lighthouse. The lush black and white photography, cleverly shot in an aspect ratio (1.19:1) that resembles a square on the screen, looks like it was cut straight out of a historical New England textbook. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke used a variety of film stocks and filters in the hopes of creating sights “we haven’t seen in 100 years.”
He succeeded. The Lighthouse looks like something from another time. The closest comparison in modern cinema might come from Guy Maddin‘s 2015 fever dream, The Forbidden Room, which uses myriad photographic techniques to create the illusion of old films either lost or forgotten. Here, Eggers and his production team use everything at their disposal – set design, sound, and costumes – to infuse a suffocating realism into this already claustrophobic world. One can almost smell the impenetrable salt air and imagine the relief it provides from the overwhelming stench of sweat and urine.
Indeed, you can feel the boundaries of the screen tightening as Thomas and Winslow slowly come unhinged. Their fates are tethered to the luminous beacon, which they come to crave and dread in equal measure. For Thomas, the lighthouse beacon is a cloak; a blinding diversion from his past sins. For Winslow, the light offers the promise of salvation, and a quieting of the voices and visions rotting away his mind. As an unceasing storm pummels the island, one thing becomes clear: the lighthouse can have only one master.
This isn’t the sort of film that relies upon jump scares or shocking bloodshed. Instead, The Lighthouse lends a physical manifestation to our inescapable, flawed nature. The evil lurking just beyond the constraints of civilization is truly horrific, and Eggers captures that horror with unrelenting candor. These men are literally adrift from humanity and bereft of identity, free to unleash all manner of psychological torture upon one another. Eggers imprisons them in an atmospheric nightmare of sights and sounds that audiences will find it difficult to shake.
In the foreground are mammoth performances from Dafoe and Pattinson. Playing off one another with the precision of a well-rehearsed stage play, each actor jockeys for the scrap of firm ground vanishing beneath their feet. Dafoe embodies a thoroughly convincing monster in Thomas, gleefully gaslighting an unstable younger partner who could easily crush him. With scores of gritty independent films now on his resume, Pattinson has been absolved of his earlier Twilight sins. Here, his Winslow is coiled so tightly with regret that you aren’t sure whether to pity him or revile him when he finally “spills his beans” about the past.
On a doomed island where enlightenment cannot exist, the only prize becomes the light itself. The Lighthouse, much like Kubrick’s opus on madness, The Shining, feels like an inexorable march towards fate. Even in the film’s final haunting frames, when the master captures the object of his obsession, the swirling light only mocks his emptiness. For the man who refuses to know himself, there can be no shelter from the storm, not even in The Lighthouse