From a screen of thick grey fog, a light slowly fades through, before a barren island comes into view. Two lighthouse keepers, long-time master Thomas Wick (Willem Dafoe) and new recruit Ephraim Wilson (Robert Pattinson) are sailing towards their shift. Enticing them to the only land in sight, the lighthouse will soon render them completely unmoored from reality.
In the lighthouse, Wick works at the ethereal beacon above, while Wilson endures the satanic furnaces below. Mythical allusions emerge throughout The Lighthouse, from maritime curses quoting “Proteus” to the crazed seagulls who encircle the island, said to contain the souls of drowned sailors.
Unhinged monologues in this two-man film, alongside the claustrophobic surrealism, evoke the plays of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter, but The Lighthouse is an undeniably cinematic experience, from the droning score and blasting sound design (including a constant blaring foghorn) to the tight 1:19:1 aspect-ration, squeezing in the breath-taking ‘orthochromatic’ cinematography of Jarin Blaschke (sadly, the only Oscar nomination for this film).
The Oscars neglect of Robert Egger’s follow-up to The Witch is disappointing but not surprising, as this unique vision is righteously non-commercial. Following the same psychological intensity of isolation from The Shining (1980), you become enraptured as these two men drive each other insane. The mania is unapologetically strange, with scenes of Wilson violently masturbating to a wooden mermaid, and Wick (responding to criticism of his cooking) ranting with a curse that invokes Neptune to engorge and absorb the ungrateful Wilson. Wick’s ornate dialogue, part pirate-dialect and part gruff-poetry, exemplifies a film whose existential horror is lined with strange comedy.
Indeed, the darkly comic script (written by Eggers and his brother) is frequently ridiculous, just as Dafoe’s wild-bearded, unblinking Wick is always poised on self-parody. But The Lighthouse’s humour is intentional, laughter emerging from the absurdity, while never detracting from the film’s effectiveness. Although Dafoe devours his scenes with his gloriously forceful performance, Pattinson also shines as his more restrained character slowly unravels with the nightmarish situation. The audience shares the terrifying mania which overtakes him during his interactions with Dafoe, ranging from primal eruptions to moments of exhausted tenderness. Trapped together, the men have only each other to direct all their anger and love.
Not everyone will like The Lighthouse, with fair reason. Those seeking a coherent narrative or gentle watch should be averted. But you must respect something so radically uncompromising, particularly when it is this well-crafted. The Lighthouse provides little guidance, but those able to undertake the treacherous journey might find something in its murky depths, even if just marvelling at the intensity of the waves.
Image: via pxhere