Writer/director Robert Eggers’ latest foray into historically authentic New England nightmares begins with our cast of two — Willem Dafoe as the peg-legged lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, and Robert Pattinson as new assistant Ephraim Winslow — arriving at the titular lighthouse, which is isolated on a remote rock and beset from all sides by the raging sea. It’s as desolate a setting as any, and the film foregoes any notion of solace as the ship that brought them to their four week shift is slowly swallowed by an ocean fog. Kept in such close quarters, and isolated from all civilization (and women, crucially), nerves begin to fray at a rapid pace. Wake’s stern demeanor, salty sea tales, abundance of flatulence, and unslakable thirst for spirits annoys Winslow to no end, and Winslow’s adherence to rules, teetotaling, and taciturn nature earn him no favors with his new boss. The relationship between the two characters is the rock this film is anchored to, keeping the film on an even keel throughout an increasingly absurd storm of madness and secrets by allowing the audience to hold on to some tangibly conventional element. The often jarring abruptness with which the film introduces its more unhinged elements makes little concession to audience understanding, and are delivered with the same furious pacing as the ardently old fashioned nautical dialect Eggers’ characters speak. Besides moving in fits-and-starts, the intentionally repetitious structure of film–built around the routine of chores both characters do to maintain the lighthouse–may prove frustrating to some. But, like all frustrations this elusive film metes out, it is in accordance with its devious grand designs.
The film settles into a rhythm of long stretches of Sisyphean labors that Winslow engages in to keep the lighthouse maintained during the day (never to Wake’s satisfaction, of course), a brief evening meal where our two characters interact, and then surreptitious nocturnal retreats as each character attends to their own secret routines (it is in the dark, of course, where the realm of the supernatural most permeates the story). The brief repasts are where the film comes to fiery life, offering the two actors the chance to spar with the deliciously salty vernacular Eggers, and his brother Max, have written for them. Dafoe in particular gets the lions’ share of the memorable lines (which the marketing team cannily worked into all the promotional materials, along with a particularly talented seagull) and he chews through them with gusto. The film is far from audience friendly with its suffocating mood, increasingly deranged scenes, and maddening ambiguities, but Wake and Winslow’s frequently combative, occasionally (surprisingly) tender, and always (even more surprisingly?) hilarious relationship, creates undeniable sparks of crowd-pleasing entertainment.
As entertaining as the duo is, because the film starts with the paranoia already cranked so high there’s not much of a satisfying arc in pushing them further off the brink. The film likely could have played things safer by starting on more stable ground so as to maximize the dramatic shift, but instead sacrifices drama for suffocating mood and exteriorized madness through setting (a similar trade Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, 1980 made, which The Lighthouse is fittingly filled to the gills with homage to). Even if the descent into madness element of the plot can feel a bit rote, the specifics of how that madness is brought out through the narrative are packed with details to dig into. Greek myth, nautical folklore, Eldritch knowledge, psychosexual domination, and Freudian symbols make this two man descent into madness a richer text than one might surmise from the simple premise and scant character revelations. There are mysteries aplenty, but none come with the shock of revelation, and indeed the brief reveal of Winslow’s shrouded past (on the surface it appears to be one of the cards held closest to the film’s chest) hardly even registers. Wake himself even comments on the disappointment he feels in Winslow’s character development. It’s a small moment that at first registers as yet another humorous exchange, but is in fact one of many breadcrumbs that is layered into the film to uncover its deeper mysteries, none of which are handed to the audience in so easy a fashion as it reveals Winslow’s past. Any beans the film does spill are merely a Rosetta Stone to decipher everything from the abrupt supernatural occurrences, to the endless lighthouse labors.
The Lighthouse is a less satisfying work than Eggers’ previous film, The Witch (2015), on the level of pure cinematic drama. It operates less on character driven arcs and climactic build-ups, and more on heady poetic myth; it is laced with knotty symbolism, peopled by archetypes more than characters, and laboriously creaks along with fitfully clipped pacing. But attempting to scratch away at its barnacle encrusted secrets to spirit out some meaning for yourself is hardly a chore, as thunderous Melvillian monologues and fart humor are meted out with equal entertainment value and narrative contextualization, and the gorgeous cinematography and sound design (the score itself seems to bleed from the ominous fog horns and machinery of the lighthouse) makes for a sensorial and richly textured experience no matter how much you can glean from this exercise in myth making. The Lighthouse is a brave second feature for Eggers to continue to prove his immense talents in the craft of cinema, and bravery is sometimes worth more in the end than something you can tie up neatly with a bow. No, The Lighthouse will sit untied and untamed, left to be picked over by theorizers, critics, and gulls alike, a place as worthy as any.