In his 2015 masterpiece, The Witch, director Robert Eggers brought the American horror story full circle, shedding two decades’ worth of genre-savvy self-awareness in one cackling scream. Eggers achieved this by returning to the source, as it were, to the Puritan roots of the nation’s eternal terrors: isolation, infiltration, impotence – the family unit riven from without and within. With his sophomore feature, The Lighthouse, Eggers visits another demon-haunted New England locale, swapping the mid-17th-century Massachusetts homestead for – you guessed it – a lonely lighthouse situated on a blasted spit of rock in the 1890s. Like The Witch, Eggers’ latest film is a keening, clawing nightmare conjured from essential American anxieties. Here, however, the director is more explicitly on the attack. While The Witch functioned as a bleak, brutal restatement of the nation’s foundational fears (and blunders), Eggers’ new film is more of a counter-myth, one in which he scoops out the guts of America’s most compelling lies and slurps them down with gusto.
It takes a little while to get there, but in the meantime The Lighthouse offers up buckets of dread-soaked, art-horror atmosphere spattered with a surprising quantity of dark comedy. Shot on black & white 35mm film in the almost-square 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film opens on a silvery-gray mass of fog as a low, infernal peal from a foghorn slices through the gloom. That sound – a fierce, vibrating bellow that never fails to startle – is unrelenting, loosed at steady intervals by a clockwork mechanism near the titular lighthouse. Within the story, the foghorn’s roar serves as a kind of ironic warning: Turn back. There is death here. Unfortunately, new lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) – “wickies,” in the film’s crusty period parlance – are steaming straight into the jaws of this damp, fishy hell for a four-week hitch. Their predecessors don’t even raise their heads to acknowledge Wake and Winslow as they trudge past them in the pounding rain, boarding the ship that the newcomers just disembarked.
Winslow seems ill-at-ease almost immediately, his dark eyes scanning the creaky, leaky sleeping quarters with a kind of sour exhaustion. He unrolls his mattress, finding a carved mermaid figurine mysteriously secreted inside the stuffing. Who placed it there? With his grizzled beard and puffing pipe, Wake is a garrulous, picture-perfect Yankee seaman – practically a Melville-indebted cliché, Winslow observes at one point – whose salty wordplay lends him a certain charm. However, he is unreasonably harsh with Winslow, forever growling that the junior man is “neglectin’ his duties”. These responsibilities seem to include everything except for the minding of the lighthouse’s lamp from dusk to dawn, a role that Wake jealously reserves for himself. The older man pointedly and unfailingly locks the gate to the upper level of the tower, as well as the cupboard where he stores the outpost’s logbook.
Winslow bristles at Wake’s gravelly severity and amused condescension. The junior man performs his many duties – hauling coal and oil, maintaining the clockworks, mending shingles, cleaning the living quarters – with diligence, but Wake is never satisfied. The senior keeper also seems to be up to something peculiar: Winslow glimpses him standing naked in front of the lighthouse’s sweeping beam one night. Or perhaps it was just a trick of the eye? Wake, for his part, regards his underling with a suspicious squint from the first night, when Winslow refuses alcohol because it’s purportedly against U.S. Light House Establishment regulations. “I’ve read the book,” he declares, but Wake isn’t impressed by Winslow’s studies, his teetotaling, or his lack of maritime experience. “What’s a timber man want with bein’ a wickie?” he asks with grinning distrust when he learns of Winslow’s past in the Canadian lumber trade. “Jus’ startin’ new,” is the evasive non-reply.
With visible impatience, Wake explains the intricacies of the job to Winslow, from the pragmatic – how to properly shuttle lamp oil to the top of the tower, for example – to the esoteric. The latter category includes a superstitious prohibition against harming sea birds, which Wake claims are the departed souls of drowned sailors. “Tall tales,” Winslow sneers, but he’s thinking of a specific one-eyed gull that’s been bedeviling his steps from his first day on the island. Regardless, Winslow is troubled by something ominous and ineffable in this godforsaken place; his nightmares are full of dark waters, drowned bodies, and shrieking mermaids. He listens dutifully to Wake’s colorful nautical yarns, but they seem to be rich in self-serving bullshit and confusing contradictions. Whether due to cabin fever or ordinary social ineptness, Wake’s behavior is erratic: He pulls the younger man closer with booze and sea stories, only to push him away when Winslow becomes too familiar and confessional for his taste. Winslow wonders aloud about the a keeper previously stationed with Wake on the island, a man purportedly consumed by fantasies and madness.
The director and his co-writer, brother Max Eggers, have constructed a scenario that contains undeniable echoes of genre classics like Repulsion (1965), The Tenant (1976), The Fog (1980), The Shining (1980) and The Thing (1983). (It also feels of a piece with Polanski’s 1971 adaptation of Macbeth, a non-horror film with plenty of horrific moments.) The style and mood, however, are pure American gothic, as filtered through the retro aesthetics and absurd humor often associated with Luis Buñuel and Guy Maddin. (Maddin’s endearingly bizarre 2006 silent fantasy Brand Upon the Brian! also features a lighthouse, as it happens.) Nevertheless, the fundamental influences on Eggers’ film ultimately feel more literary rather than cinematic: Melville, of course, but also Edgar Allan Poe, Hans Christian Andersen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginia Woolf, and H.P. Lovecraft. The film’s surreal, hallucinatory imagery often seems particularly indebted to the latter, given the preponderance of New England maritime motifs and weird, cephalopodic horrors. One is also reminded of contemporary weird fiction authors like Jeff VanderMeer, whose novel Annihilation (and its 2018 film adaptation) portrays a lighthouse as Ground Zero for a sort of mutagenic apocalypse. There are deeper mythic vibrations as well, often explicitly referenced in the film’s ornate dialogue: oaths and omens; sirens and harpies; King Triton with his lethal trident and Davy Jones with his benthic prison.
As one might expect, the irrepressible Dafoe delivers the Eggers’ florid, briny wordplay – replete with blunt aphorisms, corkscrew profanity, and at least one astoundingly long-winded sailor’s curse – with an enthusiasm that alternates between comical and frightening. As Wake, he cuts a figure that is fiendishly mutable. He can seem like a tyrannical Ahab one moment, a slippery sea snake the next, and a whimpering, pathetic old coot the one after that. The viewer doesn’t quite know what to make of him, nor does Pattinson’s Winslow, who grows more and more convinced that his companion is gaslighting him for some unfathomable purpose. After the pair’s replacements fail to turn up at the four-week mark, the passage of time starts to slip and slither in a haze of alcohol, sea shanties, and grubby violence tinged with homoeroticism. “How long have we been on this rock?” Wake asks with a sinister twinkle, “Five weeks? Two days? Help me to recollect.” Often, The Lighthouse plays like a farcical roommate comedy unspooling at the intersection of Poe and Preminger: The Odd Couple as a kind of blustery, anachronistic neo-noir. Only with more farting and masturbation.
Winslow has dark secrets of his own, of course, and Pattinson plays him as an unpleasant snarl of contradictions. He is a plain-spoken Everyman at first glance, but eventually it becomes obvious that he's quietly seething with anguish and prone to tetchy hostility. Pattinson’s accent veers all over the Martin Scorsese map – some Bill the Butcher here, a little Teddy Daniels there – but his portrayal of a man who’s slowly being boiled alive by guilt, fear, and suspicion is characteristically superb. It’s the same Pattinson who delivered such a frenzied turn in the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time (2017), but the buzzing electricity of that film has here been replaced by the oiled clank of a clockwork vice slowly ratcheting shut.
What truly plagues Winslow is not his partner’s scheming mendacities or his visions of tentacled sirens, but his own past. (There’s that film noir touch, almost eccentric in its placement here.) Why has Winslow drifted from one trade to the next? Why did he depart his previous job driving freshly-hewn lumber downriver into Hudson Bay? Why this feeling that sea and storm are judging him for his sins, while also promising a kind of burning purgation? The Lighthouse only gradually reveals the method in its madness, the beating heart that was always under the sea-warped floorboards. There’s no climactic twist per se, and the film never really clarifies is phantasmagorical ambiguities, but there’s no mistaking its stinging criticisms, which focus primarily on the American “reinvention myth”.
Winslow’s ambition to remove himself from society – to exile himself to the most isolated place imaginable – is rooted in his enduring belief that anyone in America can start over, a rebirth typically catalyzed by a change in name and scenery. It’s an enticing fantasy grounded in the power of denial, willpower, and forward momentum, a fantasy that Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men (2007-15) spent seven seasons alternately reinforcing and dismantling. (One thinks of Don Draper’s deeply cynical words to his protégé Peggy Olsen, urging her to move on after a personal scandal: “This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened.”) The Lighthouse counters that there’s no outrunning the past, not the least because the guilt is always there, seeping in like the salt, sand, and rain. For Winslow, the past is less Gatsby’s enticing green light than a crushing downward force, like countless grasping tendrils dragging him into the abyss. It’s an evocative, chilling concept that Eggers embeds in every sodden inch of this wild, nervy film – although, depending on the scene, it might be conveyed with dense existential dread, repulsive fantasy visuals, or utterly deranged slapstick.