This seems to be the year for acclaimed horror directors to make their second films: Jordan Peele with Us, Ari Aster with Midsommar, Jennifer Kent with The Nightingale. Now, up comes Robert Eggers, who follows up his scary-as-hell 2016 movie The Witch with The Lighthouse, an altogether stranger period film. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what this movie is going on about, but I won’t deny its stretches of considerable power.
The story takes place somewhere on the New England coast in the late 19th century. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) takes a job as an assistant to Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), who keeps a lighthouse on an island and warns Ephraim that his predecessor went insane. “Boredom makes men to villains,” says Thomas in his archaic English. “The only cure is drink.” He assigns Ephraim the roughest, filthiest jobs while forbidding him from going near the lighthouse’s lamp, which makes Ephraim wonder why Thomas likes to go up in the chamber and stand naked in the light. Are the reasons sexual? Psychological? Religious? Ephraim’s stint is only supposed to last four weeks, but what feels like six nor’easters rolled into one traps him on the island with Thomas. Telling what’s real becomes increasingly difficult, especially after the two men start consuming large amounts of alcohol to cope with their isolation.
As he did in The Witch, Eggers uses outdated language to make us feel less sure of our footing in this fictional world. He films this in black-and-white, along with an unorthodox squarish frame. (Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke delivers a virtuoso performance.) Eggers and editor Louise Ford cut rhythmically to suggest the drudgery of the labor involved in keeping up this lighthouse — Eggers cites the writings of Sarah Orne Jewett for many of the details here. Seagulls taunt Ephraim relentlessly, and when he starts to hallucinate mermaids washing up on shore, their screams are seagull screams. The whole affair feels like one of Guy Maddin’s ferociously obscure retro exercises like Brand Upon the Brain! or The Forbidden Room, even if Eggers’ film is more psychologically akin to Victor Sjöström’s silent masterpiece The Wind in its study of loneliness eating away the mind.
With all this pagan imagery and mental instability floating about, you’ll be surprised by how many fart jokes are here, as Ephraim threatens to go crazy simply from Thomas’ unbelievable flatulence. It’s part of Eggers’ strategy of cutting the darkness with comedy, which culminates when Ephraim makes a disparaging joke about Thomas’ cooking. At first, Thomas seems genuinely hurt: “I seen it, yer fond of me lobster.” Then he launches into an amazing rant of wholly disproportionate fury expressing his wish not only for Ephraim’s watery death but also for the annihilation of his very soul. (“Let Triton’s waves take down this young man and fill his lungs with puncheon slime!”) Pattinson is quite good in the latter scenes, when the madness takes hold and doesn’t let go, but no one embodies the film’s grotesquerie better than Dafoe. While his Popeye the Sailor mannerisms are quite funny, he also manages to be unbelievably terrifying as well in that scene and others.
Intellectually, I don’t think this comes together as elegantly as The Witch did. Eggers keeps hinting that the two men will have sex in that incredibly penis-shaped lighthouse, but it doesn’t come to anything. The same goes for the suggestion that Lovecraftian monsters of the deep are lurking about, or that one of the men is a Lovecraftian monster in disguise. Still, The Lighthouse is a trip, a harrowing journey into the minds of two men who drive each other insane while locked up together with the weather raging outside. In such a place, a man’s reason can blow away like a fart in a windstorm.
Starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Directed by Robert Eggers. Written by Max and Robert Eggers. Rated R.