“The Lighthouse” is Robert Eggers’ black-and-white nautical psychodrama. His much-anticipated follow-up to “The Witch” starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as men that end up at the mercy of nature.
This descent into madness, set in 1890’s middle-of-nowhere Nova Scotia, has strangers Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Efraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arriving at a remote lighthouse post for a four-week stint of physically exhausting work at a lighthouse. Efraim is an ex-lumberjack, but Thomas seems to be the one bossing him around, call it a matter of seniority, which Thomas seems to think he can use on his workmate. And so, the set-up of the movie has Thomas luring Efraim, a non-drinker, into a bout of drinking games to break the ice. This leads to a whirlwind of minimalist emotional manipulation on the part of Eggers as our two leads argue, joke, dance and become more and more paranoid of each other’s presence by the minute.
Thomas’ paranoia seeps into his imagination as he starts seeing an abandoned mermaid down by the shoreline. Is she just a figment of his imagination? It doesn’t help that a menacing seagull keeps following him everywhere he goes, in an almost threatening-like fashion. The way he tackles this “seagull problem” leads to a surreal but hilarious scene of un-adulterated ”revenge.”
“The Lighthouse,” much like “The Witch,” rides and dies by the atmosphere Eggers attempts to convey to his audience. It’s a sort of enveloping dread that is almost impossible to sneak away from. It is driven by the countless conversations between Eraim and Thomas in their claustrophobic surroundings. They just have each other’s company, and nothing else, to rely upon for entertainment, but even that has its limitations, especially when both men couldn’t be futher apart from each other in terms of personality.
This slow descent into madness is anchored by a noteworthy turn from Pattinson. The way Thomas loses his mind right in front of us is sneakily rendered by the 33-year-old actor. However, it’s Dafoe who steals the show. His Efraim is damn-near horrific to behold, a behemoth of a presence with his unkempt beard, ridiculous pirate accent and toxic machoism. Dafoe gives a performance that is so over-the-top, yet ingrained in a humanism that damn-near hypnotizes the viewer with its every word uttered.
Of course, Eggers can’t help but fully invest his film in minimalist stylings. after all, this is, quite simply, the story of two men and the inexplicable force that slowly takes hold of their minds. For all its ambitions, the way it’s all constructed by Eggers is predictable enough. It’s not like we haven’t seen psychological thrillers tackling a character’s inner unravelings before. If the way Eggers shoots it is original and up-to-par with the standards he set in “The Witch,” that still cannot diminish the fact that, eventually, Eggers can’t help but throw away subtlety in favor of twists. It all does become too much, but hey, maybe that was just the jetlag talking. I will no doubt have to re-watch this film. It was seen at 8:30am on about two hours of sleep and whole lot of caffeine to remain focused. A film like “The Lighthouse” is made to be seen in the wee-wee hours of the evening, when the spookiness of its entrappings most likely shines brightest. I look forward to, hopefully, a midnight screening at TIFF in September.
Regardless, much like “The Witch,” this sophomore endeavor from Eggers is about characters threatened by invisible forces. It may not necessarily be as bold a narrative as its predecessor, but it almost makes up for it with the kind of imagery, courtesy of “The Witch” cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, that is heavily indebted in 19th century folklore, a 35mm black and white nightmare, if you will [B+]