A beacon shining upon the grotesqueness of male dormitory cohabitation, The Lighthouse is more or less the story of a couple strangers—a frosh and the unbearable fifth-year senior he’s been tossed in with—forced into a small living space, where a month of mismatched bickering finally gives way to a drunken, destructive devolution. Transpose that idea to an island lighthouse at the turn of the century and you’re halfway to finding your way through the anxious, darkly-comic delirium of The Witch director Robert Eggers’ latest, a flat-out fantastic, always-captivating picture deserving of its early reputation as one of the best of the year.
With little-to-no introduction, the film opens on Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow being dropped onto a tiny New England island, where he’s to serve as subordinate “wickie” (to use the lighthouse keeper slang for lighthouse keepers, which I always do) to Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake. It’s a classic Odd Couple of a mentor-apprentice situation: Thomas is a crotchety old guy who likes his drink, runs a tight ship, and insists on manning the lighthouse light itself on his own, regardless of what the guidelines say about alternating turns; Ephraim is the by-the-books new guy who—per regulations—won’t drink on the job, is reluctantly forced to clean the place, and is desperate to get up at that light. Thomas constantly farts; Ephraim constantly masturbates to the little mermaid figurine he found. They couldn’t be less alike!
Signed up for a month-long shift together for wickie duty, the two manage to just about make it through their tour before a storm comes, indefinitely delaying their pickup. Since they already started getting trashed in celebration of what they thought would be their departure, they keep up with that, and as hopelessness and abandonment set in, they’re both perpetually trashed, and at least one of them starts to lose his shit.
Rarely beautiful but always effective, The Lighthouse revels in looking just as it should. Shot in a boxy aspect ratio, in grainy black-and-white, it resembles a late-‘20s classic (right down some specific shots) more than it does much else made in the last century—and while it’s never quite a pastiche, it’s also utterly beholden to its look. While, say, Mad Max: Fury Road was effective in both its original, vibrant colors and its straight-to-video black-and-white remaster, Eggers here really sells the idea that the medium is the message. As a crisply shot color effort, it’s a far different, far worse movie.
Though Pattinson and Dafoe have openly admitted to having conflicts on set, you’d never know it (or perhaps see it all too well, given the contentiousness of the characters) from how well the two sell this two-hander. Pattinson’s last big screen appearance, the likewise surreal-at-times High Life, primed him for playing against the desperation—and horniness (more on that to come)—of isolation, and it shows. He’s as strangely magnetic as ever when alone, and he more than holds his own against the many, many scenes where he’s forced to go toe-to-toe against a seasoned film icon. Dafoe is predictably great, but what’s more impressive with him is that he’s able to sell an absolute cartoon of an Old Sea Captain—bearded, jigsaw-toothed, pirate voice and all—as a compelling, humanized foil. As he did with The Life Aquatic’s Klaus, Dafoe gives a hard-nosed, rookie-hating old sailor with a ridiculous accent a vulnerability that occasionally drifts into the comic. (A scene about Thomas’s cooking may surpass anything Klaus did in terms of being hilariously near tears.)
The Lighthouse could have just been Ren & Stimpy’s “Space Madness” by way of Guy Madden’s similarly silent-film-looking, lighthouse-set, darkly-comic Brand Upon the Brain. And while it is definitely sort of that, it’s that with a quiet message behind its haunting cacophony of ticking clocks, churning machinery, crashing waves, aggressively booming score, and the bellow of horns and Dafoe’s ass. It’s a brilliant psycho-sexual thriller too.
From the opening scene, a phallus of a lighthouse rising in front of Ephram as the dark, vaginal shape of the ship departs the island, there are immediate winks to there being a sexual aspect to The Lighthouse. When Ephram later pulls an effigy of a mermaid out of a slit in his mattress, plucks her from the bed’s pube-like filling, fucks his vision of her massive sea-lady vagina in her tail, and has a near-kiss with Thomas turn into full-blown fisticuffs, it’s clear that man’s sexual rage is the coal being dumped in the burner of the lighthouse fire. And it rages hot enough that damned if you won’t be horny for this film.
Director: Robert Eggers
Runtime: 110 minutes
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe