Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. A24 releases the film on Friday, October 18.
“The Lighthouse,” Robert Eggers’ gripping black-and-white nautical psychodrama, draws from a sea of potent references. The filmmaker’s hypnotic follow-up to “The Witch” conjures the ghosts of Herman Melville and Andrei Tarkovsky, with ample doses of Stanley Kubrick and Bela Tarr for good measure. It’s a stunning showcase for Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe to unleash their wildest extremes, by positioning them at the center of a two-hander about a descent into madness in the middle of nowhere. It’s the best movie about bad roommates ever made.
As with “The Witch,” Eggers’ sophomore feature once again centers on a small group of characters surrounded by the elements and consumed by invisible forces, driving each other mad in the process. And once again, the title says it all: Set sometime in the 1890’s, “The Lighthouse” finds Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Efraim Winslow (Pattinson) arriving at that remote post, where the watery beacon extends from a small rocky islet and into a chalky sky. They spend the duration of the movie wandering its muddy, haunted crevices, and while the movie telegraphs their fate early on, the thrill comes from watching their erratic downward spiral take shape.
Set for a four-week stint doing gruntwork, Efraim’s an ex-lumberjack saddled with toiling under the watchful eye of Thomas, a seafaring veteran who insists that only he can spend the nights at the top of the tower while Efraim deals with the rougher chores down below. It doesn’t take long for the soft-spoken Efraim to develop a deep-seated resentment for his grimy overlord. The pair share close quarters at every waking hour, and the unkempt Thomas, a snorting, farting embodiment of vulgar sailor ticks, seems intent on getting under his underling’s skin.
So does the island itself: Wheeling materials across the uneven terrain and tasked with whitewashing the lighthouse from a rickety scaffolding that could collapse at any moment, he comes across like a gnarly figure of slapstick whose persecution is a grand visual punchline. And that’s before he’s assaulted by a menacing seagull keen on blocking Efraim’s path at every turn. The bird is a spiritual successor to the demonic goat Black Phillip in “The Witch,” but more than that, a keen gateway to the movie’s ecological undertones: This is a story about men at the mercy of the natural world, which seems to regard them as a burden or a natural resource, but both possibilities lead to devious ends.
Eggers has once again constructed a dark fable out of absorbing imagery and sound design. “The Witch” cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s pallid 35mm imagery (which boxes the characters into the Academy ratio) has a haunting, grainy quality of a genuine window into some forgotten past, while the wind and waves whip across the soundtrack alongside Mark Korven’s ominous score.
Yet with so much expert craft on display, “The Lighthouse” aims for a more simplified narrative than its predecessor. The overbearing Thomas cajoles Efraim into drinking with him late into the night, gradually pushing the reserved fellow to let his guard down and eventually lash out with frustrations. They joke, dance, argue, repeat. Eggers douses their exchanges in more outlandish possibilities, including the hints of aquatic humanoids lurking on the shoreline that may or may not exist within the confines of the fragile Thomas’ overactive imagination.
But these amusingly offbeat flourishes speed past in rapid-fire montages and dream sequences that resist any complete interpretation. Instead, “The Lighthouse” keeps coming back to the two men, the smarmy veteran and his despondent underling, as they engage in an abstract power play that can only end in doom and gloom. As a storm careens over the lighthouse and sits there, their limbo becomes a private hell. Efraim begins to question the reality of their surroundings, and Eggers certainly drops hints about that possibility, even as Thomas mocks it with nefarious glee.
The movie provides a welcome platform for these actors to unleash their wildest abilities: Pattinson spends the first half sulking around, his eyes darting every which way as he attempts to make sense of his dreary surroundings. But when the material calls for him to unleash his fury, his eyes bulge and his body quakes in a pure show of physical intensity. It’s the sort of showboating the actor tends to avoid, but this histrionic material gives him the ideal excuse to lash out, and with winning results. Meanwhile, the ever-reliable Dafoe — buried in a gnarly beard and growling through an exaggerated pirate accent — may as well be Captain Ahab’s less ambitious brother. That comparison even gets called out, as Thomas grows weary of the nautical archetypes of the story and whines, “You sound like a goddamn parody!”
He might add that the movie looks like one, too. But “The Lighthouse” is so attuned to its many cinematic traditions that it feels like a movie that could have been made decades ago. The visual language and story beats convey everything from “The Seventh Seal” to “Solaris” to “The Shining,” but the closest point of comparison is actually Bela Tarr’s apocalyptic “The Turin Horse,” another modern black-and-white minimalist saga about two people trapped in a shadowy enclosure as the world collapses around them.
In “The Lighthouse,” however, the agenda surrounding that setting remains elusive. On the one hand, the movie hails from the Herman Melville school of man-versus-nature epics built around the impermeable attraction of the sea. At the same time, it often reduces that trope to background noise, while exploring the perils of unchecked masculinity coming to blows. The movie is not without its homoerotic undertones (“You’re fond of me lobster!”, Thomas exclaims, once Efraim lays out their differences), but it’s more precisely keyed into what happens when active minds feed off a shared sense of alienation. “Boredom makes men to villains,” as Thomas puts it.
While “The Witch” build its central threat around an unseen menace that gradually makes its presence known, “The Lighthouse” establishes the main threat from the outset, hiding in plain sight: That twirling light at the top of the building provides these moths with an eternal flame, and Thomas insists that he keeps it all to himself, which only makes Efraim want it more. In this disturbing variation on the Tower of Babel, the potential for enlightenment is a profound lie, and the men who buy into it are kidding themselves until it’s too late.
“The Lighthouse” premiered at Directors’ Fortnight at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it later this year.