By KYLE KERSEY
Horror: “an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.”
Throughout “The Lighthouse,” you’ll feel all three.
Set on a New England island, separated from the outside world by the roar of the Atlantic Ocean and a thick fog, the sophomore film from Robert Eggers (whose first film, “The Witch,” might be my favorite horror film of the decade) stars Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow and Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake, a pair of 19th century wickies contracted to maintain a remote lighthouse for four weeks. Clear roles are set: Wake acts as Winslow’s elderly and eccentric supervisor; making him do the more physically exhaustive work and generally chastising him in sailor-speak (i.e. he’s like every restaurant manager). He views himself as the keeper of the lighthouse; the only one allowed into the lens room itself where Winslow frequently sees him at night, staring into the glow of the lens. As the weeks of dull, tiresome work pass, Winslow begins experiencing hallucinations and an off-putting dream featuring a mermaid washed-up on the shore. After a storm delays their departure from the island, the two men – fueled by large rations of alcohol – begin to fall victim to their isolation, slipping further and further into madness, struggling to separate delusion from reality.
This film has all you could ask for in your psychological horror movie: gripping performances, unsettling tension, a substantive story, unknown horrors, the Green Goblin and Edward Cullen jerkin’ it with disturbing regularity (Willem Dafoe shows up naked every ten minutes or so). It’s weird. I hesitate to even box it in as a horror movie or as an anything movie. There are moments of abrupt humor, moments of Shakespearean character drama and moments of heart-racing suspense all packed into a two hour movie.
Dafoe and Pattinson are spectacular. Both embody their roles perfectly; Pattinson as a repressed timber man shrouded in mystery and Dafoe as an old-timey nautical traditionalist. There’s both a chemistry and unsettling tension between the two, and despite speaking in antiquated English, both feel like flesh and blood people rather than Shakespearean archetypes. Both have depth.
In a lesser film, Winslow would be the rational young skeptic and Wake the old buffoon rambling on about his antiquated traditions of seagulls housing the souls of dead sailors and the bad luck of leaving a toast unmet, but here – just like in “The Witch” – there’s a suggestion that these superstitions have truth to them. When Winslow beats a seagull to death in a rage, a storm comes and destroys much of the men’s food rations, leaving them only alcohol to sate their appetites. This mere occurrence at least opens the door to the question of whether Wake’s supernatural prognostications are true or if the men are simply losing their sanity.
At my screening, there was this older couple who I could only imagine walked in expecting some quaint period piece that hearkened back to a time long since passed. And yes, shot entirely in black and white on 35 mm film and using an uncommon 1:1 aspect ratio, “The Lighthouse” mimics the aesthetics of old black and white silent films. And yes, the results are absolutely stunning; everything about the island feels period-specific and accurate. Given the level of technical mastery on display, it’s hard to believe that this is just Eggers’ second film.
However, while the aesthetics mimic early 20th century cinema, the narrative structure does not. “The Lighthouse” is paced like a freight train rolling downhill: starting slow before gaining momentum and moving through scenes at a frantic pace, many of which feature no more than drunken conversation or dancing. That 1:1 ratio adds to the sense of isolation; the two black bars on the sides of the screen force the characters to share a small frame, and the film is so darkly lit that the bars can even blend into the background. The effect of this is a claustrophobic feeling; Wake and Winslow are cramped into frame when together and, when not, appear utterly alone.
Add all this up and you’re left with a disorienting experience that feels somewhat like Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “The Shining”. When Wake asks Winslow “how long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two Days?” later in the movie, you genuinely don’t know. Time has no consistency; days and nights mold together, mornings are only signaled by the wickies rising from their beds, and even then it’s impossible to know what time they’re waking at. Add all of this together and you have an intense descent into madness.
“The Lighthouse” is that special movie that sticks in your mind long after seeing it. Presenting thought-provoking ideas that are as disturbing as they are intriguing, it’s the rare horror film (if you can really call it that) that doesn’t bow to cheap scares or excessive gore. Rather it sets an ominous and unsettling tone throughout and explores existential themes that will make you uncomfortable. It’s also the kind of movie I don’t know who I can recommend it to. While I was enthralled by the skilled filmmaking and genre-bending approach, I can also see many of its eccentricities acting as barriers to entry.
It was right around the time when Dafoe curses Pattinson to hell in sailor-speak for criticizing his cooking of Lobster that the aforementioned old couple shot each other a look of confusion. And later (somewhat spoiler ahead) when Dafoe is put on a leash and walked like a dog, I heard a nervous laugh from the husband who, I can only assume, recommended they go see it. So suffice it to say, “The Lighthouse” isn’t for everyone. It’s actually quite a bit funnier than I expected. Some will find charm in this strange neurotic tale and some will denounce it as “artsy fartsy” and “not a comic book movie.” So be it. I think it’s a masterpiece.