Sometimes a film is so bizarre, so elegantly shot and masterfully performed, that despite its helter-skelter pace and muddled messaging I can’t help but fall in love with it. So it was with the latest film by Robert Eggers (The Witch), The Lighthouse. An exceptional, frightening duet between Robert Pattinson and Willam Dafoe, The Lighthouse sees two sailors push one another to the brink of absolute madness and threatens to take the audience with them.
Fresh off the sea, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) arrive at the isolated locale and immediately get to work cleaning, maintaining and fixing up their new home. Everything comes in twos: two cups, two plates, two bowls, two beds. The pair work on the same schedule every day, only deviating when Thomas decides something different needs Ephraim’s attention. Like newlyweds sharing meals across from one another each morning and every evening, the men begin to develop a relationship.
It takes a long time for either of the men to speak. They’re both accustomed to working long days in relative silence. Both Dafoe and Pattinson bring a meditative quality to their characters. They may not possess the inner peace of a Zen monk, but their thought processes are singular and focused. Only the lighthouse and getting back to the mainland matters. Eggers uses the sound of the wind and the ocean to create a soundscape of harsh conditions and natural quarantine. The first words spoken invoke a well-worn prayer, not for a happy life, or a fast workday, but to stave off death.
Fans of The Witch should not expect a similar experience during The Lighthouse. Yes, major themes of isolation, fluctuating relationship dynamics, repressed sexual desires, and light use of folklore to color the edges of the story exist in both films, but The Witch contains far more commercial appeal and a more straightforward narrative than The Lighthouse. Shot in black and white with a 1.19 to 1 aspect ratio, the visual uniqueness may scare off some less adventurous film watchers. But cinephiles, particularly those who crave masterful performances, should make time to screen The Lighthouse in theaters.
By using 35 mm film and that distinct aspect ratio, Eggers sets up a vaudevillian/silent era aesthetic. Then, he challenges Dafoe and Pattinson to play the dastardly villain, the stoic hero, and the damsel in distress. Early on, Eggers and co-writer Max Eggers establish a time limit, after which the men will be free from one another and the stress of the job. The pacing during this time feels steady and consistent. When the deadline passes, the time becomes a maddening thing. Before the time limit, Thomas and Ephraim have a restrained relationship. They do not trust one another. The oblong lodging heightens the feeling that something is amiss between the men. The long and sometimes blinding shots of The Lighthouse evoke fear and suggest deceit.
Editing (Louise Ford) and cinematography (Jarin Blaschke) work together harmoniously to create an uneven pace. The black-and-white tones heighten the drastic difference between their drunken nights and the clear-headed mornings. Eliminating shadows allows for a breath after their late-night confessions and brawls. As the days begin to mesh, the editing picks up the pace, quickly transitioning from one point of view to the other.
Without women, the men turn to their fantasies to manage their sexual desires. Ephraim holds close to a carving of a mermaid. The sea represents his escape from a troubled past. He dreams of seducing his mermaid, but she remains elusive. Trying to love this new life presents a unique difficulty. A demanding boss, Thomas doesn’t think anything Ephraim does measures up to the standards of his love, the lighthouse. He’s obsessed and refuses to allow the young man near the actual light structure. “She’s been a finer and quieter wife than any flesh-and-blood wife,” Thomas proclaims.
Like a married couple, Thomas and Ephraim become more accustomed to one another’s moods, better at detecting lies, and the madness they’ve carefully hidden from one another. In the beginning, I believed Thomas to be mad. But then Ephraim’s wild dreams of a bizarre mermaid and murder made me doubt who’s point of view could be trusted. To add more madness to the mix, the men form a toxic relationship. Not a romantic relationship by any means, theirs is a relationship built out of desperation for human contact. They dance together, sing, pray, eat, piss and fart without hesitation so that intimacy can’t help but form. They even become jealous of one another’s relationship with the sea and the lighthouse.
Once the deadline for their departure has passed and the two men grow exhausted with pleasantries, it becomes harder to detect which man has a grip on reality. The dialogue, an Eggers specialty, leans into the chaos. Thomas questions whether or not Ephraim can cognitively recognize how long they’ve been at the lighthouse. Suddenly, I was confused as to how much time had passed.
A visceral ride, The Lighthouse explores man’s relationship to the sea, specifically through the lens of backbreaking labor. Thomas and Ephraim’s relationship is like a Rorschach test. At times they are manager and worker, partners, enemies, father and son, competitors, master and pet, and victim and abuser. In many ways Eggers’ latest reminds us of Last Tango in Paris, which explored a similar unhealthy relationship dynamic. Just as captivating, frightening and thought-provoking, The Lighthouse shines.
Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers & Max Eggers
Starring: Willam Dafoe and Robert Pattinson
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Joelle Monique is a Rotten Tomatoes-certified critic. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, her passions include movies that sit at intersectional crossroads and high stakes drama TV. You can find additional work at Pajiba and follow her on Twitter.