In an opening shot of “The Lighthouse,” in what would later become a sequencing of violence after violence situated on a distant isle assailed by constant fog and storms, we see the prow of a ship furiously cleave through the water as if this simple function of the vessel is a deadly act of cutting violence itself.
Played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, a pair of fresh lighthouse keepers aboard a murderous ship, the two emerge from a dense fog to spot what will be their home and post for four weeks — a lonely isle populated by an imposing lighthouse, seagulls and a discoverable slow decaying of sanity. The film is a Lovecraftian, silent-era inspired "tripping down the rabbit hole and breaking a leg or two" descent into cabin-fevered, psychosexual hysteria.
Coming off the heels of his debut feature film back in 2015, “The Witch,” written with his brother, director Robert Eggers' sophomore effort is a film concerned, in part, with liquids of various viscosities, all-natural secretions made unnatural through a lens of individual madness, maritime mythology and nautical nonsense. Chamber pot blackwater, seagull guano, raging shoreline upsurges, ejaculate white paint, animal corpse-tainted well water and bloody viscera all make an appearance here, alongside a puzzling affinity for fart jokes.
Like “The Witch” before it, we find ourselves in the company of archaic individuals in an archaic land speaking in archaic expression. Eggers' previous career in theatrical production and direction is readily apparent here, the director taking to staging and blocking that which would seem more adequately placed upon a proscenium than in a cinematic picture.
Furthermore, he urges his performers to act in hyperbolic thespianism — shouting and accentuated body language governs the devil dances wrenched out of the bodies and mouths of Dafoe and Pattinson. Their dialogue is old-fashioned and hidden behind graveled voices, and through their performing of Eggers' material, both Dafoe and Pattinson have turned in the finest performances of the year. They are outstanding, consistently and successfully walking the tightrope between comedy and horror, yet never succumbing to misstep. Dafoe, who may finally secure an Academy Award, has one of the best monologues in recent memory, where he, with his face underlit and unfiltered, damns an unruly Pattinson with a curse.
Pattinson plays the unreliable narrator, Ephraim Winslow, the protagonist we see the narrative through. As he withstands sirens of the foghorn and mermaid persuasion, the temptation of both the surrounding sea and the lantern room of the lighthouse, and in his growing feud with his superintendent in Dafoe's Thomas Wake, a soot-crusted Santa Claus who has his own venereal fascination with the lantern room.
As dark clouds loom overhead, and as the sea crashes onto the shore, Winslow sees his daily duties in repetitive, heavy-lifting housekeeping, while Wake, sleeping during the day, takes to tending the light in the tower in the after hours. They are both moths attracted to the flame that is the lighthouse’s namesake, only they don't yet realize that flames burn.
Sexuality permeates the narrative. The title and geographic subject of the film performs as a phallic symbol taunting Winslow's isolation-bound sexual repression and rewarding Wake's desires in the lantern room, the tip of the shaft. Mermaids sport genitalia, while seagulls capable of an escaping flight mock Winslow's confinement to the island.
A hole is cut in one of the cots, and inside is a feminine figurine, leaving the hole with an ostensible two purposes in use. Masturbation and even a moment of homoerotic tension appear here, in a maelstrom of claustrophobic neurosis — further defined and bolstered by the cramped 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which is even narrower than the Academy ratio.
The narrative mostly resides in obscurity, never revealing the truth behind the nightmare-like sequences or in who — between Winslow and Wake — is of sound mind, their asking of each other's trust always brought into question between themselves. Their demons — of a sexual or violent nature — could, in fact, be real. Creatures and surrealistic aberrations that are rooted in seafaring mythology and literature — of Neptune and Poseidon, of Prometheus, of Herman Melville and Jules Verne — or they could be the result of acute neurosis. Luckily, Eggers is the kind of filmmaker who understands answers to plot-defined questions are not always needed.
As evidenced by my slightly cautioned rating, my objections are relatively unclear to me. But while this is no masterpiece, “The Lighthouse” is clearly a film made with superlative skill, and is a film so categorically weird that its antiquated form and function, its tonal flexing between the humorous and the disturbing, would, in the hands of a lesser director, crash and burn upon the rocks.
It's Hitchcock's “The Birds,” Kubrick's “The Shining,” Bergman's “Persona” and — oddly — in stark opposition to the company it finds itself in, Ozu's “Good Morning.”
All of these film’s sensibilities tossed into a boiling, venomous liquor of mythic horror, excrement-stained cinematography and complete with an assaulting brass-and-strings score supplied by Mark Korven. And of a singular attitude for gothic, psychological horror that delivers the blood, the dread and most surprisingly, the laughs.
Sophomore efforts by directors historically get the better of them, but “The Lighthouse” is no such specimen — instead, it's even better than “The Witch,” and one of the finer films of the year.