Writer and director Robert Eggers caused a stir with his folktale debut The Witch back in 2015, and his sophomore effort is fantasy horror The Lighthouse. The 1890s plot follows experienced seafarer Thomas (Willem Dafoe) as he hires fresh new recruit Winslow (Robert Pattinson) to help him with the upkeep of a lighthouse off the coast of Maine. Working hard by day and drinking hard by night with only each other for company, the harsh conditions and isolation eventually takes its toll on them, and Winslow slowly descends into madness.
Shot in black and white with a squared off 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film clearly has very deliberate arthouse sensibilities. An enjoyable black comedy tone is established initially as Winslow unwillingly gets to know Thomas, exposed to his bad habits and booming sea shanties. The pair’s early exchanges are just the calm before the storm though, as their day-to-day routines grow increasingly crazy against the blustery hellscape of the island. A hypnotic nautical nightmare ensues as Eggers lets fly with fantastical imagery; his excellent use of light and dark is complimented by a pulsing score as we see the men spiralling literally and metaphorically.
In Dafoe and Pattinson, we get a double-header of powerhouse performances. For large parts of the movie, the dialogue is incredibly minimalistic, so we depend on fraught expressions to convey the agonies and the ecstasies of their experience. In the more eventful sequences, the conversations flow freely, and words are thrown like punches from frustrated, world-weary boxers finding strength in the final rounds of battle. The murky simmering humour rises from the depths of darkness during their encounters, with some uproarious one-liners that will no doubt wind up as memes and gifs soon enough.
His patiently paced experimental style could be construed as ostentatious, but it’s beguiling to see Eggers exercise his imagination in such an innovative way. The Lighthouse is so richly textured that you can almost smell the saltiness of its sea air; it’s a sensory exhibition of cinema that tests endurance but deserves to be experienced.