It doesn’t take much more than the opening scene of The Lighthouse to realize you’re watching the work of a true master. Following up on the critical success of his chilling 2015 folk-horror debut The Witch, director Robert Eggers marches into a 19th-century setting with the swift velocity of a coal engine, channeling his obsession for authenticity through a 1.19:1 frame and a grimy coat of black-and-white paint. If The Witch treasured each of its cold-blooded scares, The Lighthouse takes equal delight in surpassing every one of its demented meltdowns, methodically backing its audience into a corner until their only remaining options are to hysterically scream or laugh. Preserving only the shrewd production design and period-accurate dialogue of its predecessor and tossing everything else out, The Lighthouse’s only discernible anchor to reality is the steady tempo of the salty waves crashing against its clammy coasts.
Opening with a deceptively humble titlecard that just as easily could have been repurposed from a 1920s silent short, The Lighthouse mysteriously departs on a barge headed towards a rocky beach. Its two enigmatic characters (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, both rustically unrecognizable) stare silently ahead into the fog, where the luminous beacon of a distant lighthouse- their destination- stands alone against the grey oblivion. Their previous histories are left for vague clarification later, but each’s personality emerges almost immediately as they begin their duties manning the lighthouse. Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), the younger and more inexperienced of the two, is an irritable, spiteful creature whose sexual frustrations over being stranded on a rock with the sole company of a male tyrant materialize in unexpectedly vile ways. His more weathered partner is Thomas Wake (Dafoe), a dominating sailor whose unkempt beard and scruffy dialect call to mind a Captain Ahab parody- an amusing detail that Winslow later taunts in a fit of rage.
After an extended, purely visual introduction, The Lighthouse settles into a twisted buddy comedy, a darkly humorous portrait of two roommates who really don’t like each other. Much to the younger’s annoyance, Wake restricts Winslow from the respectable task of manning the lighthouse’s beacon, forcing him instead to perform all the tedious, dirty work of cleaning and maintenance. If Winslow’s burdens weren’t vexing enough- which range from shoveling coal into the tower’s furnace, painstakingly scrubbing its barnacle-encrusted exterior, and avoiding a pesky seagull- Wake’s questionable cooking ability, perpetual inebriation, and loud farts add ample fuel to his already-irritated psyche. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect duo to play Winslow and Wake than Pattinson and Dafoe, and it’s at once hilarious and horrifying to watch them battle it out with verbal sparring and physical violence alike (in one hypnotically bizarre sequence, the two lob impossibly long and maniacal sailor curses at one other). Both actors have never been better (or at least crazier), but especially Pattinson, whose jaw-droppingly unhinged performance emerges as a stark mirror to the masterfully brooding work he did earlier this year in Claire Denis‘ High Life.
As with The Witch, the staggering attention to detail that Eggers pays to production and sound design yields tremendous dividends in immersing the audience in the film’s fever dream of a world. Through its isolated island setting and rigid box of an aspect ratio, The Lighthouse’s scope represents a claustrophobic focal zoom to the superstitious agoraphobia of The Witch. Under the dizzying spotlight of a more confined locale, The Lighthouse imbues even more ominous urgency to its rich sound design, which oozes with as much existential angst as the film’s incessant downpour of rain and fog. The opening sequence alone represents a masterful achievement in audiovisual montage, delicately blending the dense thuds of a boat crashing against violent waves with the Lovecraftian boom of a distant lighthouse horn. As the stakes crescendo with hysterical insistency, so does the score, reaching peaks of psychotic ferocity as delirious and crazed as its two mentally withering characters.
Administering a dose of Eraserhead‘s dream logic to Persona‘s secluded two-person setting and The Shining’s formal descent into madness, Eggers wears his various cinematic allusions cleanly and honestly on his sleeve. Such transparency affords The Lighthouse a baffling degree of opaqueness, as it transcends all of its influences to achieve depths so euphorically demented that this critic couldn’t restrain the stupid grin plastered across his face for the film’s final 50 minutes. The more aggravated each character becomes, the more their fates seem to intertwine, their unified insanity manifesting itself in drunken debauchery and extended tirades devoid of any sort of logic or common sense.
If one ever held doubts about Robert Eggers’ talent after The Witch, The Lighthouse should conclusively shed all uncertainties. The young production designer-turned-director may have only two films under his belt, but he is already emerging as a stunning virtuoso filmmaker with a uniquely anachronistic style, unmistakably modern in its conception and eerily classical in its execution. Choosing to see The Lighthouse is contractually agreeing to participate in its whimsical madness, allowing yourself to go as utterly insane as the film determines to take you. If you agree to such terms, you won’t find a more joyously deranged nightmare all year.
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