THE LIGHTHOUSE is an experience, and no mistake, but it’s an experience I’d struggle to sell. Much like director Robert Eggers’ previous film THE WITCH, it’s fascinating, but it’s an acquired taste.
Two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) must spend a month together tending their light on a spur of land in inhospitable New England waters. But what will drive them to madness first, the tedium, the merciless weather, the hypnotic quality of the light, or each other?
The relentless soundscape digs right into your internal organs from the off. Before we see anything we hear a chugging engine and foghorn. In a cinema with a good sound system your teeth rattle. This opening salvo of sonic buffeting is the most peace you’ll have on this journey. You quickly find yourself getting in the same headspace as the two men losing their grip on reality.
They actually had to build a lighthouse for this, and its presence looms effectively. They had the unforgiving weather and the inhospitable location for real, but it had to be accessible, filmable. The filming too is making a real statement – Jarin Blaschke’s bleak black-and-white, square framed and claustrophobic cinematography, shot using period lenses because they hadn’t already made their lives difficult enough. Willem Dafoe lived in a cabin for the duration, so there’s that as well.
Pattinson’s character (who may or may not be called Ephraim Winslow) is trapped in an eternal cycle of exhausting routine. He scrubs floors and polishes metal and quicklimes the water supply, and maintains the and powers greasy mechanisms the purpose of which is a bit of a mystery. Don’t expect answers, only further questions.
Willem “save some cheekbones for the rest of us” Dafoe in particular mesmerises as Thomas Wake (pronounces “wick” in his accent), like an enigmatic beam of light. He’s like when (one for the British reader) they made Captain Birdseye sexy all of a sudden, but with more farting. I’ll admit to understanding less than half of what he says in his thick seadog brogue, but the impenetrable dialect and rhythm of his voice certainly adds authenticity to the “Poseidon’s Curse” scene.
The two men really come across as losing their grip on everything – sanity, willpower, humanity. The tired trudging, terrifyingly tortured grimaces, jerkily dancing out of nowhere. Of course there’s bodily expulsions of all types and animal tormentors both real and imagined, because it’s that kind of psychological drama.
I loved how their relationship grew from animosity to tolerance to old married couple passive aggression over the course of the story. They finally strike up a pleasant conversation over a meagre dinner after a few days of hostile sniping and abuse. Then they get into a routine of getting absolutely sloshed every night thereafter. When provisions run low, so do tempers. Drinking lamp oil can’t be good for you. One curses another for a careless action bringing bad luck down upon them, but perhaps their biggest scraps happens when the truth comes out about the cooking “Yer fond of me lobster ain’t ye?”.
The Lighthouse won’t be for everyone, in fact it probably won’t be for the majority, but you can’t say it’s not interesting. If you like a certain weird tone, ambiguous plotting and theme and oil-black humour wrapped in an all-consuming soundscape then its for you. It’s only the latest in a series of eclectic and interesting roles for Pattinson, so long may that continue in and among Batman movies. SSP