The Lighthouse Review: Madness in the Fog

The Lighthouse Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in "The Lighthouse." (A24)

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe crash upon the ramparts of Robert Eggers’ disquieting followup to The Witch.

If you could distill the A24 horror aesthetic into a single vision, it’d probably be that of Robert Eggers, the outre horror stylist who crashed onto the scene with 2015’s The Witch (sorry, The VVitch), a haunting, off-kilter tale of witchcraft and New England folklore centered around a highly expressionistic, unrelenting sense of atmosphere. Four years later, Eggers is back with The Lighthouse, the kind of bold, bleak, dizzying experimentation only a filmmaker with Eggers’ cultural capital could attempt.

The Lighthouse is at once of a piece with, and distinct from, his work on The Witch, modulating his clear affection for folklore and the horror of the human psyche into a far more masculine tale. Where The Witch centered around a young woman whose restrictive religious family dynamic drags her into supernatural liberation, The Lighthouse concerns itself with the way masculinity and isolation chokes men and drives them to violence. The logline is simple: two men — a seasoned sea dog named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and young, inexperienced lamplighter Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) — begin a four-week post at a remote lighthouse, with no other company to enjoy apart from their own.

Right away, the dynamic is strained and uncertain: Wake is a gruff drunk who flaunts his seniority and has a strange, almost pathological relationship with the eerie light that emanates from the lighthouse; Ephraim, meanwhile, strains under the back-breaking menial labor and condescension Wake lays on him. Their mandatory evening dinners and chats don’t help, especially as Wake disappears into the drink and encourages the teetotaler Ephraim to do the same.

Even before tensions flare and almost-supernatural forces conspire to keep them from escaping the island — and each other’s caustic company — The Lighthouse unsettles with Eggers’ arresting visual language. With its constrained Academy ratio (I love this new push to play with framing in the last few years) and grainy black-and-white photography, The Lighthouse evokes old maritime photographs and the silent films of Victor Sjöström (The Phantom Carriage) to eerie effect. We feel at once disconnected from Ephraim’s plight and similarly boxed in with these two men, chafing under the constraints of their miserable work and bleak environment. The whole frame feels coated in dirt, muck and brackish waves. Mark Korven‘s droning, discordant score chitters up your spine like a brisk gale, interrupted only by the ominous foghorn that signposts their eventual fates and the rest of the film’s invasive sound design.

And of course, there are the performances, The Lighthouse becoming an intense two-man show that plays to each of its leads’ strengths. Dafoe feels like he was born to play Wake, his reedy voice and Irish brogue (“why’d ye spill yer beans?”) pairing well with a jaundiced eye and prickly personality. But it’s Pattinson who undergoes the grandest transformation, a healthy reminder that he’s long since left Twilight behind; as the perspective character, it’s he who falls victim to many of the hallucinogenic properties of Eggers’ universe, from visions of mermaids washed up on the beach to terrifying glimpses of Wake’s strange behavior in the lighthouse tower.

As the stresses and delirium of the island — not to mention some secrets from his past — weigh even further on Ephraim, Pattinson grows ever more slap-happy, slowly growing into a more terrifying presence in the film’s final act. All of this is aided by Eggers’ fanciful prose, a heightened kind of sea-language that evokes (as the credits admit) everything from Herman Melville to real accounts of the kind of vernacular enjoyed by sailors in the 19th century.

The Lighthouse unsettles with Eggers’ arresting visual language.

All of this is metaphorical for Eggers’ most fundamental concern in The Lighthouse — deconstructing the arbitrary and destructive nature of traditional modes of masculinity. Throughout the course of the film, Wakes and Ephraim become father/son, mentor/mentee, teacher/student, brutalizer/victim, friends, colleagues, and nearly lovers. In some respects, The Lighthouse may be one of the queerest films of 2019, a treatise on how toxic masculinity teaches men to destroy each other before they could even admit any kind of sentiment or affection for one another.

The escalating and shifting tension between the two characters echoes the way men are typically socialized to perform for each other, a scintillating mixture of competition, love, and fear that makes for some of the richest meat on The Lighthouse‘s menu. It’s a Robert Eggers film, so you know it won’t end easy or well. But maybe that’s the point: masculine pride and inhibition are greater enemies than even the fiercest storm.

The Lighthouse shines into theaters October 18th.

The Lighthouse Trailer:

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