With his feature debut The Witch in 2015, director Robert Eggers proved himself a sudden and undeniable master of horror. And I think it safe to say that The Witch is a stronger example of the genre’s power than his sophomore effort, this weekend’s The Lighthouse. But The Lighthouse may prove itself a more impressive endeavor in all: a chaotic-yet-methodical, disturbing-yet-hilarious thrill ride of guilt, distrust, and paranoia that transcends genre description.
In its unceremonious first minutes, the film introduces us to two lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), as they arrive at their place of work: a lonely, craggy rock in the middle of the misty sea. Their simple, unenviable mission: to service and maintain the lighthouse for four weeks and return to mainland. Wake is a veteran, apparently having worked this very lighthouse for many cycles; on the other hand, Winslow is new to the job, having seemingly stumbled across it. Solitude and paranoia set in as the two interrogate each other and become suspicious of one another’s odd behavior. Wake seems strangely fascinated with the light atop the tower, barring Winslow from going near it at night and hoarding it to himself. On the other hand, Winslow’s vague past and motives bring up questions of trustworthiness from Wake. The rest of the film sees the two sizing each other up by way of overly masculine shouting contests by day, and drunken singing and dancing by night.
The film is shot in a grainy black-and-white, with a claustrophobic near-square aspect ratio, which aids the ever-increasing tension between the two wickies. Stark lighting and inky shadows force expressive and theatrical performances from Dafoe and Pattinson, both of whom are absolutely electric. The lonely, rickety setting of the lighthouse seems to mirror the men’s deteriorating psyches. Eggers’ background as a production designer is clear.
It’s rather difficult to get into the details of what makes the two men’s descent into madness so compelling without giving away too much of the story, but Eggers has crafted something truly unique and powerful. The Lighthouse is surprisingly difficult to categorize, unlike Eggers’ chilling previous work; it is equal parts funny and weird and intense and unnerving, without leaning into any of those quite hard enough to comfortably fit the bill of any particular genre. This approach, in turn, reflects the mental fortitude of its main characters. Suffice it to say that The Lighthouse is insane. In the best way, of course.
The Lighthouse is as unique a picture as I’ve seen this year; perhaps the only other that so defies convention (that I’ve seen) is Luce, though the two films have little in common. Eggers has once again proven himself a director worth making the trip to the cineplex for, and The Lighthouse is sure to shock, amuse, intrigue, and befuddle any kind of viewer.