The secrets and lies that permeate every shot of Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, a manic depressive exercise in toxic masculinity and other physically damaging psychological nightmares, seem commonplace for a conventional story. Throw them in with a world that seems not to be ruled by any kind of normality, where time doesn’t adhere to understanding and open spaces feel constricting as if designed to choke the life out of you, what you end up with is an atmosphere that feels upside down and backwards. One where people chewing on dirt and praying to sea gods seems inconsequential. An atmosphere that seems to suggest to the confused members of the audience that maybe, just maybe, we are the mad ones.
When veteran lighthouse operator Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and trainee Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrive on a New England island to serve four weeks as the island’s Wickie’s (lighthouse keepers) they are subjected to the island’s isolating torments and when the prospect of their return to the mainland is stripped from their grasp they find their mental states deteriorating as they give in to their baser instincts and possibly the will of an island unwilling to let them go.
Shot entirely in black and white, Eggers film is by every sense of the word foreign. Not only is his world dark, intense and constantly shifting but it is one where inner darkness is banal, an expected occurrence when the trappings of civilisation are gone. Be it Wake’s need to strip off and embrace the elements or Winslow’s incessant need to fill his time with constant masturbation or wishful fantasies. At first, the real villain here is the downtime and loneliness that allows these two men to give their wanton desires a voice. The more they give in, the more they crack, as the ground and time that governs their actions shifts around them, the more it feels like a fight for dominance, a pissing contest where psychosis is the prize.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke gives a voice to this seemingly sentient island through a variety of inhospitable yet lavish wide shots, a pervasive gaze and a willingness to strip these characters of any sense of privacy thanks to some carefully framed but intrusive camerawork. Guaranteeing that the ocean feels like a wall instead of an escape, a barrier keeping these two from clambering out of the hole they find themselves in, Eggers traps them in a dangerous and elaborately constructed set. The waves and winds making them face their own shit, sometimes literally, while they bow to a malevolent power bigger than the both of them. Neither one of them seem to understand that nobody cares who comes out on top, they are a spectacle for other, more sadistic reasons.
While Eggers, through his mythology heavy screenplay, co-written by brother Max Eggers, constructs his film as a cautionary fable, a look at the damaging nature of masculinity but also mankind. A clear environmentalist message is built around this greek tragedy, a macho Madea where sanity plays second fiddle to the selfish whims of Wake and Winslow. Despite a fixating central performance by Pattinson, Dafoe proves the scene-stealer here, as in his hands, Wake is a crass, controlling old coot but one whose experience and wisdom does little to protect him from slow, unnoticed degradation.
Ultimately this is passionate and brave storytelling that doesn’t so much demand your enjoyment, just your attention. Never a pleasant experience, or a coherent one, The Lighthouse is a series of metaphors that chip away at your understanding leaving you unsure what you saw, who these characters were and what is being said but knowing that the decision is entirely up to you. All-consuming and pervasive in how it presents very real horrors, Eggers follow up to the Witch establishes him as an eminent voice in the horror genre, but one capable of looking outside of it in new and exciting ways.