Starring Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson
Written by Max Eggers, Robert Eggers
Directed by Robert Eggers
Much like with Eggers’ debut feature The Witch, the dialogue in The Lighthouse should come with subtitles. Since it doesn’t, all senses are heightened as one devotes every bit of attention to the screen so that as little as possible is missed. Watching a movie like, say, The Fast and the Furious doesn’t require the same level of focus because the dialogue falls naturally and easily. But not so with The Lighthouse, which uses historically accurate sailor dialect that was researched thoroughly by the Eggers brothers, particularly with the works of author/poet Sarah Orne Jewett. With every bit of attention unerringly dedicated to the film, this phantasmagoria plays the audience like a fiddle, weaving a deeply unsettling sea shanty.
The premise could not be more simple: two men, Thomas (Dafoe) and Ephraim (Pattinson), are tasked with the upkeep of a lighthouse off the New England coast. Trapped on the island for several weeks, they have no choice but to be in each other’s company without respite. Private time is almost unthinkable as the island is so small that Thomas can watch over the railings of the lighthouse and see Ephraim at any given moment, a watchful, mocking deity. As the days pass, cabin fever settles in and the two men’s relationship becomes chaotic, transitioning from best friends to fistfights to slow dancing in each other’s arms. And much like the crashing of waves against the island’s shore, their world comes crashing down with terrifying force.
It’s not a far stretch to say that The Lighthouse features perhaps the best performances from Pattinson and Dafoe yet, both committing fully to their roles, every fiber of their being pressed into these characters. Dafoe’s Thomas, the grizzled lighthouse master, embodies the role of a man who believes in very little but the sea and the myths, superstitions, and legends that it has created over eons. He spews curses with fiery intensity and fierce conviction, spittle flying from his lips as his face contorts into a Luciferian visage. Pattinson’s Ephraim is a man with secrets and a seething rage that is ever leaking at the seams. He descends into the depths of depravity with wide-eyed frenzy, almost as though he is consistently shocked by how deep his emotional turmoil goes.
The sound design heightens all emotions. The constant siren of the lighthouse washes over the island and ocean. Thunder and waves indistinguishable. The clinking of the chains in the lighthouse and the creaking of the home in which they temporarily reside. Everything is measured using pinpoint precision so as to evoke consistent unease.
The audio is coupled with rich cinematography from Jarin Blaschke, who captures textures with rich clarity and beautiful scope. The camera is pressed in uncomfortably close in one scene before pulling so far back as to make the island and lighthouse seem microscopic in the next, sometimes swooping like the seagulls that constantly circle the island. Natural lighting creates beautiful contrasts between light and dark, black and white.
Through all of the terror and hallucinations, there is a shocking amount of humor throughout The Lighthouse. This isn’t to say that the movie is a comedy. Rather, the humor comes naturally and has impact on the greater story. Thomas’ seemingly endless farts are not just there for toilet humor but grate endlessly on Ephraim, each one the potential straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Complaints with this film are few and far between. The first act overstays its welcome, shots lingering unnecessarily. The dialogue is incredibly difficult to understand fully and a home video experience with subtitles is an experience I’m eager to have.
Still, these minor issues cannot detract from what is, without a doubt, a masterful cinematic experience. Robert Eggers proves that he is no fluke.
The Lighthouse proves once again that Robert Eggers is a visionary, a director who is willing to take bold risks that result in some of the most fascinating and captivating cinema today.