At its height, German Expressionism was celebrated (and in some circles derided) for its severe unreality. During a silent film era dominated by adventure or romance, here was a style bathed in madness and psychological perversions as stark as its shadows. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse isn’t quite pure expressionism—the young auteur is too fascinated by naturalism for that—but it may as well be with its pitiless gray skies, often desolate black and white shores, and two stormy performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson that are so touched by madness that the cracks in their unblinking stares and crusty whiskers cast an unreality all their own.
Shot in the same aspect ratio as the likes of Fritz Lang’s M, The Lighthouse is a descent into the kind of delirium that might come from drinking too much sea water or staring too long into the shimmer of a beckoning lantern—searching in vain for something dry or warm. But there is nothing so cozy about this raspy movie, which requires both actors to reach for their most bellicose affectations that, in the best scenes, achieves a mythic quality. That’s fairly remarkable when both characters, and perhaps the movie itself, is caught in a perpetual drunken stupor.
Set at the end of the 19th century on a remote rock off the New England coast, The Lighthouse is about its eponymous structure, which stands forlornly even in the morning breeze. It is this exact sight that begins the movie for Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), who is arriving for his first stint as a wikie on the island. A very specific type of lighthouse keeper, wikies are in charge of maintaining the mechanical, clocklike structure of the giant oil lamp that wards off ships from disaster. However, as the second to the elder Thomas Wake (Dafoe), Ephraim discovers his job is actually glorified maintenance and domestic work while Wake keeps the joy and apparent ecstasy of operating the lamp light every night to himself.
As mercurial and impenetrable as the rocky, treeless island itself, Dafoe’s Wake could be almost mistaken for caricature with his mile-long beard and corn cob pipe which he perpetually puffs. Yet Dafoe is so miraculously entrenched in this salty dog that it’s nothing short of riveting the way he drinks every night and breaks the film’s long silences during the day (when Thomas slumbers) with an endless barrage of sailor jargon. These rants threaten to drown Ephraim just as much as the ocean itself. Worse still, it was only meant to be a four-week stint on the island, but as Ephraim fails to heed Thomas’ nautical superstitions, a grim nor’easter soon suggests their residency could be indefinite. And as the storm grows ever louder, so does both men’s drinking, not to mention Ephraim’s own visions of a beautiful mermaid inviting him into the deep.
As Eggers’ follow-up to his masterful debut film, The Witch, The Lighthouse arrives with much anticipation. Like this movie, that first effort drew on New England folklore and is in this critic’s opinion not merely one of the great horror movies of the last few years, but one of the best chillers ever made, period. Yet while sharing a taste for the grandeur of campfire folklore from some of America’s oldest regions, The Lighthouse is a much more ambitious effort and, by design, unknowable. Whereas that earlier film directly acknowledged the stakes by confirming a supernatural presence early on—and using it as fertile soil for an exquisitely dense allegory—The Lighthouse is more interested in wading into ambiguity and laying anchor there… even if the chain doesn’t necessarily reach the bottom.
Only a horror film in the vaguest sense, The Lighthouse is closer to the reality-inversion of psychodrama character studies like Repulsion. Yes, there are mermaids and the overcast presence of forces as Lovecraftian as the tentacles Ephraim at least thinks he sees emanating from the light, but it is informed by the type of overbearing solitude that made sea monsters themselves a fevered sailor’s nightmare.
Consequently, The Lighthouse is very much a discomforting reverie where almost everything we view is suspect. Neither character is a reliable narrator, no matter how much they mumble about themselves via antiquated idioms through boozy breath. But it is the voices articulating those ravings that make The Lighthouse so haunting. Pattinson has grown into a captivating character actor over the years and provides a fine New England tenor to the kind of loveless despair he’s already portrayed in films like High Life. His is a portrait in discontent, which only serves to complement Dafoe’s tour de force as a one-legged seaman who never heard a shanty he didn’t like.
Portraying Wake as equal parts disapproving father figure and perhaps spurned lover of Ephraim—for we doubt even Thomas knows what he wants out of the young man—Dafoe crafts a fearless creation that could easily succumb to self-parody without the extreme conviction of a performer who has no qualms about playing a man whose defining characteristic is omnipresent flatulence. Just spending 110 minutes with this fella had us beginning to doubt our own sanity too.
Their world, which is slathered in old timey superstitions and forgotten fables, is meticulously brought to life by the art direction and costumes, all of which Jarin Blaschke films in austere black and white so gloomy that it’s chilliness drifts past the screen and sets into your bones. These exact qualities, with an emphasis on historical authenticity even as we veer toward the surreal, further confirm Robert Eggers as one of the most impressive visual stylists of his generation and a director to always watch. It also gives this film a delicious dreamlike quality.
Nevertheless, it will not be for all audiences. Indulgent where The Witch was purposeful, and protracted when that earlier effort was precise, The Lighthouse lacks the insistent dread of his first effort and will most assuredly ward off many genre audiences as effectively as a flashing beacon on the shore. But for those already predisposed to this type of journey, it will be as comfortable as a wool sweater on a lonely night.
The Lighthouse opens in theaters on Oct. 18.