Director Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is a difficult film to recommend to everyone. Simultaneously grotesque and obscure, it is intended for a specific audience, but will work like gangbusters when it reaches the right person.
The premise is simple, and may sound familiar: Two lighthouse-keepers in the late 19th century, alone for weeks at a time, bond as secrets of the island’s mystery slowly reveal themselves — or do they? It’s a well-worn tale of vulnerability between two men, and their potential madness at sea, but it’s elevated by Eggers’ weird, quiet direction. Filmed in black and white, and in a nearly square-shaped aspect ratio, it clearly evokes the days of early cinema, when filmmakers were more daring and willing to experiment with narrative, but with a handful of modern touches. Although potentially hampered by its own ambitions, The Lighthouse is a terrific little madhouse of a movie, a perfect showcase for two of our finest actors and, unfortunately certain, to be one of the year’s most underrated films.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star as the keepers of the lighthouse, and are basically the only actors in the whole film. Now, typically this is the part of a review that would off a brief plot synopsis, but that’s sort of a difficult task for two reasons: It would do a disservice to the film for viewers to know any intricate details of how it unfolds before seeing it, and the story is sort of difficult to decipher. Eggers clearly focuses more on creating an oppressive atmosphere and understandable characters than the narrative itself. The risk with telling a story like this is that it all rests on the back of the performers; if the actors can’t make the characters empathetic among all the confusion and drama, the viewers have nothing to hold on to and it all falls apart.
Thankfully, Dafoe and Pattinson were practically made for this film, and chew up every square inch of the screen for all 110 minutes. The two deliver old-fashioned Big Acting™ performances, yelling nearly every line and disappearing under a heap of hair, makeup and time-appropriate costumes. It’s … a lot, but there are few actors working today better-suited. They make every moment downright riveting, each bringing his own over-the-top hammy charm. Dafoe goes full-chameleon, straight-up transforming into a Captain Ahab-like man of the sea. Fully a product of the time, he plays a retired mariner who drinks too much, sings sea shanties and yells things like “Swab the deck, laddy!” On the flip side, Pattinson feels almost anachronistically aware of the oddness and stupidity of old sailors’ traditions and superstitions. A man who has the entire lighthouse-keeper's manual memorized, his character is simply on the island to get the job done and leave, and frequently butts heads with Dafoe’s over-the-top boss. Once derided as a wooden actor incapable of showing emotion, it feels as if Pattinson intentionally plays with people’s expectations in the role. After starting as this basic, by-the-book man, he slowly crumbles. Brilliantly, he begins to evoke a darker mirror of Dafoe’s unhinged sailor, and you can see in his eyes as he moves ever closer to madness.
As the two keepers remain in isolation for an extended stay, it becomes clear that something else is at play. Betwixt drunken conversations the two men have deep into the night, Eggers springs weird, perplexing images onto the viewer with no context and no explanation. Much like the films of German Expressionism that inspired the movie’s look, it expertly evokes a brutal, lonely feeling through moments that may be real, may indicate a character’s psychological state, and may not even be properly connected to the narrative at all. Eggers wears his inspirations on his sleeve, building on the legacies of Fritz Lang, Gaslight and even literary unreliable narrators. On top of all of this, as the two begin to bond, their relationship resembles a buddy cop movie like Bad Boys. Bickering, angry, polar opposites yet all-too-similar, it’s actually quite fun to see their friendship grow over many, many bottles of vodka.
In Eggers' debut film, 2015's The Witch, there’s a similar “What’s really going on here?” tension, but only among the characters. In a neat bit of subversion, the opening of that period supernatural horror film reveals there actually is a baby-eating witch living in the woods, but the story’s driving conflict revolves around a family desperately trying to understand what’s happening to them. The Lighthouse almost functions as a B-side to The Witch, going full-bore in the opposite direction. Instead of inverting expectations by answering the questions at the top, the story is obscured by a veil of surrealism from front to back, bucking expectations by making a movie without any clear answers at all.
Although attempting to extract a cohesive story from The Lighthouse is an impossible exercise, it leaves ample opportunity to parse subtext. Loaded with sexual imagery and narrative metaphor, it is basically a treatise on the phallic nature of a lighthouse. As the focal point of the island that is haunting the men, driving them insane, or some twisted combination of the two, it’s difficult not to see it as a story of men being brought down by their own nature. Throughout the weird, twisted visions of surrealism, Eggers also presents a bounty of striking imagery. It’s all clearly in service of a larger, more coherent point that the story is making, but the details of it will surely require multiple watches to reveal.
Over the past few years, audiences have been inundated with “Prestige Horror,” with the recent wave kick-started by films like The Babadook and Eggers’ The Witch. It seems like every month we get another low-budget nightmare with a social message from an acclaimed auteur, and it has become difficult for many movies to stand out from the crowd. Sadly, it’s The Lighthouse’s all-out surrealism and embrace of the weird, the very thing that makes it so brilliant, that may keep it from catching on in the same fashion as Eggers’ directorial debut. This really is a shame, because the film is like watching someone walk a tighrope while juggling flaming torches and reciting the Gettysburg address from memory—it balances all types of tones, skills, and influences, blending them all together to create something wholly new.
Directed by Robert Eggers from a script he wrote with Max Eggers, The Lighthouse stars Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe and Valeriia Karaman. The film opens Oct. 18 in Los Angeles and New York City head of a wider release.