The Lighthouse (2019)

Director: Robert Eggers

Writer: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers

Producers: Robert Eggers, Youree Henley, Lourenço Sant’ Anna, Rodrigo Teixeira, Jay Van Hoy

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

Music: Mark Korven

Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke

Editor: Louise Ford

Cert: 15

Running time: 109mins

Year: 2019

What’s the story: New England, sometime in the 1890s. Two men battle personal demons and each other while tending a storm-beaten lighthouse.

What’s the verdict: As in his 2015 directorial debut The Witch, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse grapples with the theme of spiritual annihilation, though in a way that’s altogether wetter, wilder, and weirder.

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star as two lighthouse keepers, or “wickies”, cut off on a crag of brine-blasted, inhospitable rock far from the mainland. If God hadn’t made it as far as the New England wilderness of The Witch, it’s doubtful He’d know what to do if he made it out this far.

Both men are initially sullen, uncommunicative types: Pattinson raw-cheeked and bearing more than a passing resemblance to There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, both in accent and bearing; Dafoe stern and bushy-bearded. It’s some time before they get sociable enough for us to even learn their names.

Ephraim (Pattinson) is saddled with the scuttle work – struggling with wheelbarrows of coal across the treacherous terrain, working to keep the generator running. Thomas (Dafoe), as the senior wickie, keeps the night watch, fiercely guarding over the light. He spends untold time bathing in its pure, white radiance in a state of rapture, or, quite possibly, orgasm.

Photographed in 35mm black and white, Jarin Blaschke’s candle-lit cinematography is both sharp, grainy, and evocative. Every rough-hewn detail of the briny, sandy, exposed world these men inhabit is captured in a film that also feels like a relic of 1920s cinema.

The square 1.19:1 “Movietone” aspect ratio, the same used by F.W. Murnau in Sunrise, adds to this, as well as reinforcing the feeling of claustrophobia. Ephraim, a former lumber jack, wants to establish himself in his new trade. He resents Thomas denying him access to the light; a duty they should, by rights, share.

The logbook Thomas keeps locked away is another source of tension, promising a reckoning for sins real or imagined.

Thomas himself is mercurial, given to cheery conversation over dinner, when at the bottle (a pastime Ephraim initially refuses as against the rules), and blasts of salty faux-Shakespearean invective when crossed; thunderous nautical curses that would make King Lear blush.

The script, co-written by director Eggers with his brother Max, draws from journals from the era, as well as the writing of Herman Melville and 19th century American novelist Sarah Orne Jewett. Though it may be fanciful that the word “protean” has ever sat so close before to the word “rum”; just my supposition…

This melding of the poetic and the vernacular elevates The Lighthouse from oddball melodrama to cinematic must-see. Drawing both misery and comedy, often simultaneously, from two characters mired in booze, secrets and toxic masculinity, the film increasingly matches their shared mania that seems to be part cabin fever, part supernatural.

Thomas is both friend and tormenter to the aspirational Ephraim – confidante and gas-lighter; a grog-swilling old sea-dog with a mysterious limp who takes satisfaction in his own flatulence.

Ephraim, meanwhile, between sessions of furious masturbation, is tormented by visions of inky octopi and pallid mermaids; not to mention a very real and persistent seagull, presumably a compatriot of The Witch’s bothersome goat, Black Phillip.

Pattinson turns in an intensely committed physical performance, growing increasingly delirious as supplies run low and Thomas’ influence subtly grows, like a canker of the soul. Dafoe is utterly beguiling. Shot like a figure from silent horror, eyes alight with revelation, he could be the Devil or just another tormented soul.

Mark Korven’s full-throated score vibrates in your very bones while Damian Volpe’s sound design immerses you in the nautical nightmare, where a scream can be a foghorn and man is inseparable from his environment.

Bold and striking as to border on parody, a charge Ephraim levels against his salty-seadog companion, Eggers keeps things on a knife-edge of hysteria. Though arguably the self-consciously virtuosic nature of filmmaking on display does rob the movie of some of its primal power.

As rich and strange a movie as you’re likely to see this year, save perhaps for Bait, The Lighthouse is a storm-blast of pure cinema; a knotty, slimy, many-tentacled beast that will ensnare you in your seat.

Misery loves company and The Lighthouse is a work of miseri-comic mastery with which you’ll want to make acquaintance.

Rob Wallis
Podcast: The Electric Shadows Podcast

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