Avast ye landlubbers! One of the best films of 2019 is currently playing in a theater near you. No, it’s not Joker, or the new Terminator reboot, it’s The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ sophomore effort, and his follow-up to the acclaimed arthouse horror picture The Witch from 2015. Starring Robert Pattinson as a man on a contract job tending to an old lighthouse on an island under a scraggly old seafarer played by Willem Dafoe, this textured work of surrealism and psychological horror is a near-masterpiece, and some of the best work of its actors’ careers.
Robert Eggers was introduced to Hollywood with his inaugural feature The Witch (stylized in old English as The VVitch) in 2015. The film was unveiled at Sundance, and again at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was acquired by top-shelf arthouse distributor A24, as well as DirecTV Cinema, and was given a wide release in February 2016. As a part of the recent wave of arthouse horror, The Witch followed Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook in 2014, and likely played a key role in influencing horror master Ari Aster’s Hereditary in 2018 and Midsommar in 2019.
Like most arthouse horror films, The Witch was lauded by critics, but garnered divided, and even negative responses among the general public. More serious film-goers, however, can tell you The Witch is among the best of the genre. Inspired by his childhood visits to Plimoth Plantation, Eggers’ film centered on a family of 17th century Puritans and their rabid fears of witches and the devil. Their fears turn out to be well-founded, as a grouping of them lives in their local wood, subtly manipulating their rivalries and paranoia to tear the family apart and gain a new member.
Eggers’ follow-up, The Lighthouse, is another foray into refined horror, though with a rather different approach. The film is shot in classical 35mm black and white, and is as much a work of surrealist drama as it is conventional horror. With an abundance of visuals in which it’s not clear whether what’s on screen is a hallucination or an artistic abstraction, the film heavily evokes, and likely draws on the works of David Lynch. The film is as much a presentation of aesthetics and style as it is an acting showcase, as Pattinson and Dafoe show up in remarkable form.
The film begins as an onslaught of atmosphere and ambiance as Eggers immerses us into his unruly and salty setting. The time is the late 1800s, the place a small island off the coast of New England. A daunting roar announces the arrival of our two and only characters on a steamship, delivering them to begin their work assignment. Thomas Wake (Dafoe) is a veteran and aging seaman who has manned the lighthouse for decades. His latest assistant is Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), a newcomer to the sea who is harboring secrets as he pursues economic freedom.
It’s not long before Winslow realizes just how much he detests his new job. Wake is a harsh and demanding superior who is never satisfied with the quality of his work, often berating him to go faster. The work is brutal: Winslow is resulted to tending to Wake’s every whim as he scrubs every corner, carries supplies, and shovels coal into the fire-hot furnace. There is something markedly alluring about the light emitting from the lighthouse; however, Wake fiercely guards the lantern room, looking after the light himself, never allowing Winslow to go inside.
As the days turn into weeks, the grim surroundings, the exhausting work, and Wake’s insufferable demeanor begin to wear on Winslow. A raging storm prevents the relief vessel from picking him up at the end of his assignment, leaving the two seemingly stranded on the grimy island with no end in sight. Winslow’s guilt relating to a mistake from his past, as while as Wake’s superstitious warnings about his last assistant and Winslow’s feud with a seagull have his paranoia running amok, and eerie visions begin to accompany his raucous spats with Wake.
It’s pretty clear here that the mental sanity of each of these two is in a downward spiral, and Pattinson and Dafoe submit some of their finest work portraying these two men who are viciously opposed to each other most of the time, but who also chum it up as drunken pals from time to time. Dafoe hams it up as the stereotypical seafarer with some truly epic nautical rants that would make the Flying Dutchman proud, one a jaw-dropping minutes-long monologue in response to Winslow’s critiques of his cooking that you’re sure to find particularly memorable.
Pattinson delivers a dedicated performance to match, going to extremes to demonstrate his character’s decline in ways that truly confirm his commitment to the material. As Winslow’s anxiety compounds, his visions of mermaids and other creatures of the sea become more frequent, and it becomes less and less clear whether we’re just witnessing a mental breakdown or an actual victimization by spirits of the sea. The depiction of paranoia of the paranormal marks a parallel with Eggers’ previous film, here portrayed by a much higher degree of stylistic flair.
It’s all delivered with a level of surrealism that would delight David Lynch, marking strong comparisons to that filmmaker’s work not just in visuals alone, but with its bravura exhibition of sound design, another element of Lynch’s cinema of which Eggers is clearly in the same vein. From the imposing, droning roar of the steamship in the opening scene to the bloodcurdling, ear-splitting, static to convey Winslow’s dissonance, The Lighthouse is a spectacular feat of sound engineering, rendering this one dimension to the work worth the trip to the theater alone.
But sound is not the only element at play here, and all of them are demanded viewing, from the haunting depictions of nautical mysticism, to the discomforting portrayal of isolation-born madness; from the knockout performances of its two leads and to its suffocating, sinister locale, The Lighthouse is further evidence that Eggers is a filmmaker to be reckoned with. While his use of paranoia marks a parallel with his previous work, his stylistic exploits mark a progression. Eggers has yet to quite define himself artistically, but I’m excited to see where he goes next.