Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson. Directed by Robert Eggers.
The difficult second horror film often stumps directors — for every Jordan Peele busting out an Us, there’s a Corin Hardy slumming it with The Nun, and for every Ari Aster giving us Midsommar, there’s Jennifer Kent’s muddled The Nightingale. You can Thank your respective deity that Robert Eggers’ follow up to the bizarre The Witch is just as bananas.
The Lighthouse is not a film easily described, but the basic premise is as follows – Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson with majestic moustache) takes a job at a remote Lighthouse towards the end of the 19th century, where he is tasked with the menial jobs that allow cantankerous Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe under a hefty beard) to concentrate on tending to his beloved lighthouse.
The genesis for the film comes from Robert Eggers brother Max attempting to adapt the unfinished (or potentially not unfinished) short story The Light-House by Edgar Allan Poe, but in a modern setting. Instead, he and Robert teamed up to write their own film about madness.
It should be noted that the film is Oscar-nominated for its incredible cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, shot in monochrome and in the aspect ratio 1.19:1, and it gives you a sense of old-time horror but also claustrophobia. It has the feel of a horror film from years ago, watching it on TV in 1984 when you should be in bed, which only adds to its bizarre magic.
Eggers knows how to make a film heavy with atmosphere, and switching the looming forests for a coastal lighthouse means that there is much to marvel at here, in how the setting is invoked and how this makes you feel as a viewer.
The film is a surreal trip into madness, we begin to question what we have seen and what we thought we saw. Clearly the film is not meant to be taken in a literal sense and is much more a metaphysical look into the fracturing mind of one or two people.
For all it’s experimental and out-there psychological horror there is a humour – Pattinson accidents throws his and Dafoe’s poo in his face, Dafoe spends most of the film farting, there’s a lot of Pattinson screaming at things, but it isn’t funny haha but more funny bizarre.
The performances are perfectly pitched. Pattinson shows an unhinged danger that bodes well for his foray into Batman next year, and even with his out-there New England accent (he screams “gaddamn faaahts”). Dafoe, skeletal at Wake, and using Olde English turns like “says I” or “ye be” is more emancipated here than he was when he played the final days of Christ.
The film’s dreamlike nature and surreal overtones won’t be to everyone’s taste, nor will its enigmatic nature, but the film stands as its own thing, strongly defying usual genre rules. What that means is there will be people walking out disappointed but Eggers has managed a masterful horror film of a mood and is completely in and of itself.
Plus, Pattinson goes apeshit with a seagull and Dafoe sounds like the Sea Captain from The Simpsons, so even if you hate it overall, those two things make it worth the ride.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.