After the exquisitely crafted The Witch, director Robert Eggers returns with an intense two-hander starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers stuck in a perpetual nightmare of booze, hard graft and tall tales. Shot on 35mm and in black and white Eggers’ creates a claustrophobic sweatbox for the two men to go at each other for a salty danse macabre.
Willem Dafoe plays his role as Old like a mean, demented Captain Birdseye, prodding and poking at his new subordinate to keep him in line and follow his word at any cost. Pattinson as the curious and guilt-ridden Ephraim, an ex-timber worker, riles against Old’s outrageous demands wanting to build a world of his own. He constantly clutches to a wooden mermaid figure for comfort and uses it for downright, dirty kicks.
Eggers’ keeps the viewer guessing as to where this descent into madness will go, the warring men jab at one another with wickedness one moment and homoerotic pleasure the next. It plays out like the weird and wild lovechild of Guy Maddin meets David Lynch, while also completely being its own wacky invention. Eggers’ sets a bizarre and wily tone from the start, with fog horns, farts and squawking seagulls providing the disorientating soundtrack.
There’s also shades of Hitchcock’s The Birds, with a swarming mass of gulls that hover and pounce, gleefully winding up Ephraim as he goes about his daily chores. Eggers once again delights in precise attention to detail when it comes to archaic dialogue, lifting chatter from Herman Melville and giving Dafoe warped sea shanties to satisfyingly curl his lips round. Pattinson starts off as the less talkative of the two but as the liquor takes over his senses, the jigs, thrusts, merriment and all out bananas behaviour begins. As the film plunges you deeper into the psychological turmoil of Ephraim’s mind it’s difficult to tell reality from fantasy.
The gorgeous shadow work illuminates the men’s monstrous conduct with a haunting glow, creating a captivating blend of the eerie ambience of a Val Lewton production, German expressionism and silent horror film. With The Lighthouse Eggers delivers another formally exciting and evocative feature, it’s an immersive cinematic experience that luxuriates in filthy masculinity as tyrannical power struggle.
The Lighthouse was seen and reviewed at Cannes Film Festival 2019.