It is the late 19th century and Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe), a superstitious semi crippled ex-mariner, is the dictatorial keeper of a remote Lighthouse on the Nova Scotia peninsula. Lumberjack Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), arrives to assist him for four weeks after the previous help went mad and committed suicide. A life path he soon regrets as he becomes the fresh target of Wake’s spiteful bullying, drunken hectoring and despotic farting.
Buffeted by the incessantly harsh elements, and worked to the dank embedded bone by his sadistic taskmaster, Winslow begins to feel his own sanity slipping on the wet rocks of paranoia. Is his frazzled mental state a compound of binge drinking, claustrophobia and fatigue? Or, are the militant gull that bedevils him, and the lewd visions of gulping mermaid vaginas, really seafaring omens of impending doom?
Robert Egger’s follow up to the highly divisive The VVitch is more of an aural, visual and psychological endurance test than a movie. Like a rain-lashed mental double marathon of the senses, it will test the patience, not to mention the expectations, of horror fans like no other film before it.
The building blocks of The Lighthouse are simple in their closely fitting uniformity, yet deeply complex in their final construction.
Egger’s infamous passion for meticulous research forms the rooted foundations on which he fashions this minimalistic tower of head fuckery. The attention to fractions of detail and infinite minutia is almost certifiable. Reverse engineering its Swiss pocketwatch mechanics is rabbit hole heaven.
For instance, it is no coincidence that Pattinson’s character is called Winslow. Virtually every American lighthouse from 1812 to 1840 used a lamp designed by ship captain Winslow Lewis. These were replaced by the Fresnal lens that acts as the films focal point and thus, in turn, illustrates Winslow’s own apparent expendability.
Next, he fills its chilly, inhuman frames with richly textured and undiluted period dialogue, deliciously evocative exposition and escalating Alpha male conflict. The barometer he chooses to use to gauge the volatility of the two men’s interactions is alcohol. They start out on a few toasts over dinner. Soon they are putting it away like Oliver reed at last orders. Before long they are digging up buried crates of booze and partying like pissed up pirates. However, when the regular grog runs out it’s on to the Lighthouse fuel, sweetened with molasses. Once they are swilling it raw is when things get proper bat-shit nasty.
From then on he quickly assembles upwards until he reaches a pinnacle of symbolic delirium and a who blinks first game of climactic ambiguity.
Daring the viewer to wrestle free from its cloyingly hypnotic aura is one of many, almost arrogant, challenges The Lighthouse sets its audience. It unceremoniously dumps us smack bang in the tempestuous eye of a bygone storm with no comfort blankets in the linen locker, and no reference points on our moral compass.
The salty sea dog banter, exhausting bickering and elaborate badgering are smothered so thickly in verbal legitimacy that comprehension and decipherment become small victories in themselves.
Eggers chose to shoot The Lighthouse using 35 mm orthochromatic film, a stock abandoned nearly a decade and a half ago due to virtually unworkable colour rendering. Although this successfully channels the ramshackle infallibility of the silent era, the photography is so inky and washed out it makes Eraserhead look like Tarsem Singh’s The Fall. The fact it still manages to look profoundly gorgeous, despite its aesthetic desolation, is a minor miracle from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and, I suspect, the huge visual effects department.
Pattinson and Dafoe despatch the bile soaked script with alarming relish. Regardless of their broadly differing working practices, the combustible chemistry between them is captivating and tangibly intense. Like a squabbling married couple, their contemptuous familiarity simmers until it boils over into violent confrontation – and then they make up again in surprisingly tender fashion. Even more surprising, is their satirical dexterity, plucking sardonic pearls of humour from the stony shell of misery that constrains them. Dafoe’s indignation at the critique of his cooking skills is left-field comedy gold.
At no time in the production were the astringent weather conditions simulated. Every bead of pelting rain, blast of frigorific ocean wind and barrage of briny sea-spray was endured in real-time. Often, the crew could not hear each other from over a yard away because of the fierce howl of the wind. For this dedication alone, these two fine actors deserve their forthcoming Oscar nominations.
The incessantly blaring foghorn that burrows into your auditory cortex like an invasive insect.The intermittent scenes of Pattinson wanking stoically over a bone carved figurine, replete with belly slaps. The vomitous late-night necking of Lighthouse lamp fuel that descends into discombobulated homoerotica. The assumption that everyone is on more than nodding terms with ancient sea mythology and maritime phenomenons. The florid semantics and period language that makes The VVitch sound like a masterclass in modern elocution, and Shakespeare a succinct quipster. The starkly withering ending, that can only be decoded through the philosophy of St. Elmo’s fire and the eponymous saints little known patronage of extreme abdominal trauma.
All of the above and many, more are a testament to Egger’s exhaustive research, and borderline neurotic mania for authentic detail, rather than any intrinsic desire to entertain. Whether you are or not will prove incredibly subjective, but you have to hand it to Eggers, he has unleashed a piece of art that is as single-minded as it is exquisitely contrived. It never once breaks the rhythm of its cocksure strut towards horror movie infamy.
For some, this will be the edgy, force of nature horror they have been yearning for, an artistic tour de force that redefines the core concepts of horror. For others, this will be nothing more than a sulphurous, hard to swallow cure-all for insomnia. A shit-pelted rack of Emperor’s new clothes, stinking up the genre wardrobe with its tedious arthouse wankery. To be honest, the only thing that is definitively black and white about The Lighthouse is its photography.
What it definitely will be, is the eager new successor to the throne of cinematic polarisation. A blazing beacon for the difference in what critics gush over and what the majority of paying horror addicts actually want to see. Cue elitist, more intelligent than you, pontificating and mutinous cinema-goers demanding recompense. Eggers knows exactly what buttons he is pushing and will be delighted that the pitchforks and burning torches will be out in such numbers for his movie.
Personally, I was utterly beguiled by this wildly eccentric powerhouse of filmmaking.
The Lighthouse will be released on October 18, 2019, by A24. / Universal Pictures In UK on 17th January 2020.
Period Drama, Surrealist Horror, Mythical Fantasy | USA | Cert: 18 | 1h 49min | BFI London Film Festival | 5th, 6th, 11th, 13th October 2019 | Dir. Robert Eggers | Cast. Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman and a seagull