Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse builds off the contradictory nature of its vocational beacon. Designed to steer sea voyagers away from the cusps of danger, it’s a heralded symbol of security, marking the end of a journey. But sailors who use the light as a guide do so with the knowledge that the threat only grows the nearer the light gets. With his highly anticipated follow-up to 2015’s The Witch, Eggers confirms that this tenet applies beyond the rocky barriers of sea travel all the way to the source, where insanity boils into practice.
Much like his 2015 debut, the thrill comes in observing unseen menaces take their toll on an intimate cast of characters. The acute descent into madness is propelled once again by isolation, unforgiving elements, and twirling suspicions. But set against the backdrop of late 19th century New England, the addition of booze barrels leaves plenty of room for jest between the watery gothic nightmares.
The Lighthouse begins with Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arriving at their remote post for four weeks of caretaker duty. They spend the duration of the film claustrophobically wandering about its grounds and murky crevices, yet hardly ever find themselves working together.
The reason for this is far more than a simple division of labor. Thomas, a grizzled and grizzly veteran of a “wickie,” quickly calls rank, claiming all rights to the light tower watch and leaving Ephraim with the grueling grunt work. It doesn’t take long for the young man to develop a deep-seeded disdain for his unkempt superior, who, with his constant snorting, farting, and drinking, seems hellbent on driving him up the wall.
In fact, the island seems to have a similar goal itself. Forced to lug coal and firewood across the muddy, uneven terrain, Ephraim’s tasks often drag him not only towards fatigue and frustration, but injury as well; for a good portion of the film, he plays the part of a slapstick star, the tiresome victim of punchlines and materialized putdowns. All of this, plus the presence of a menacing seagull – a welcomed successor to The Witch’s demonic goat, Black Phillip – lay the foundation for the movie’s environmental undertones: for at the heart of The Lighthouse are two men left at the mercy of their natural surroundings, which always have the devilish upper hand.
Eggers has delivered another dark fable with fantastically crafted camera work and sound design. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s – returning from The Witch – 35mm monochromatic film provides a grainy frame for Mark Korven’s ominous score to whistle through, with the intrusive spouts of waves, wind, and foghorn blows adding to the trapping reality of the rock.
But despite all of this expert effort on display, The Lighthouse has taken a simpler approach with its narrative than its predecessor. The overbearing Thomas finally convinces the alcohol-abstinent Ephraim to drink with him, gradually pushing the reserved lad to lash out his frustrations. So every night, they party, dance, and fight on repeat. But through these duplications, co-writers Robert and Max Eggers, who’ve appeared to brandish the maritime lingo of Herman Melville, allow each actor to flourish with flavorfully written rants, superstitions and musings that only soar once both men appear to lose touch with reality.
These scenes are perfectly suited for Dafoe, whose made a name for himself with his trademark instability. Donning a miraculous mane of facial hair and a thick pirate accent, Thomas could very well be Captain Ahab’s less motivated brother – a comparison Ephraim actually throws back in his face (“you sound like a goddamn parody!”). And Pattinson, who spends the first half of the film sulking around, peering his eyes in every direction, desperately attempting to make sense of his occupational situation, is given several opportunities to unleash his inner fury as well. The former Twilight star isn’t known for these kinds of outbursts. But when The Lighthouse calls on him to deliver, he does, for winning results.