Disturbing, moody and absurd, The Lighthouse is a powerful depiction of two lighthouse-keepers descending into madness. On a misty and deserted island, their only job is to keep the light burning: sombre Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) toils in the engine-room, cleans out the cistern and undertakes the heavy labour, while his superior, a rugged yet poetic former sea-captain named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) spends his working hours in self-seclusion upstairs, maddening Winslow with his mysterious refusal to let him see what he does there. Alcohol and paranoia play their part, and the pair struggle to maintain a grip on reality, leaving characters and audience alike unsure what is real and what is not.
Director Robert Eggers made his debut in 2015 with his critically-acclaimed The Witch, the story of a Puritan family in early modern America as they spiral following the disappearance of their infant son. Viewers of The Witch may know what to expect from Eggers: jarring pacing, a screaming score, and a distinctively art-house feel. Yet his talent is in making these elements fit seamlessly in their context, making seemingly drastic creative choices (in this case, filming in black-and-white and integrating historical accents) seem natural and unpretentious.
Eggers drew from a variety of inspirations: allusions to Herman Melville, Sarah Orne Jewett, Greek mythology, sailors’ superstitions, historical mysteries, and The Tempest (among others) all contribute to the atmosphere. References never feel ham-fisted; they are just there to nourish the story. Whether of the sea, the craggy rocks or the lighthouse itself, the shots painted the gloominess vividly in black-and-white, while the score by Mark Korven (who also collaborated with Eggers in 2015) blurred the line between onscreen sound effects and the soundtrack, particularly in its use of the clock and the foghorn. There was also a truly incredible use of seagulls.
Pattinson and Dafoe were also excellent. Pattinson was strikingly expressive, particularly in his character’s wilder moments, while Dafoe performed with an almost manic calm, and I am not sure whether some of his speech was genuinely written in verse or whether he just leaned into its natural rhythm. Together, they form a strange and mutating power dynamic which is interesting to watch. The two also handled the unpredictable shifts from humour to terror well, although these sudden tonal changes did prevent the building of gradual tension that was so palpable in The Witch—in The Lighthouse, the caprice of the sea transfers to its captives.
The Lighthouse is an intense watch, and I’m conscious that this review is in fact also very intense. But that’s the power of it: it is immersive and affecting, and more than anything, it stays with you.
The Lighthouse is in cinemas now.
Reviewed as Film of the Week, in partnership with Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh.