There’s some films which you just know are going to divide general audiences. Even more so, I think writer-director Robert Eggers’ latest work won’t just divide, it will be openly despised by many who see it. “Well that’s two hours I’ll never get back,” said an exasperated man to his friends after the credits started rolling. As someone who never really notices audience reactions as a picture concludes, this stood out because it’s exactly what I expected. I just didn’t expect to hear it aired out so openly.
Much like Eggers’ first film The Witch, The Lighthouse follows a small group of characters who are impacted by invisible forces surrounding them—slowly sending them to the depths of psychological hell. We find Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) at a remote post off the coast of New England in the late 19th century. Ephraim is an ex-lumberjack who holds back deep resentment, while Thomas is very much a tyrannical figure—barking orders with fury.
Ephraim is subjected to a series of arduous and demeaning tasks including gathering firewood and whitewashing the light-tower, along with general mending and cleaning, while Thomas is in sole charge of the light itself. It’s fair to say that it doesn’t take long for the Ephraim to despise his boss. It’s fair to say their month working together is destined to be hellish—both figuratively and literally.
What The Lighthouse excels at is being a hallucinogenic trip which increasingly becomes nightmarish to the maximum. The island they’re on itself feels like a fully formed character in the narrative. It’s a structure which could collapse unto itself any moment, continuously providing mortal danger to our characters. With its constantly rugged terrain and haunting aura, it’s most definitely a contributing factor in sending both Thomas and Ephraim completely insane. Then there’s a pesky seagull which ceaselessly pesters Ephraim when he needs to complete any simple task. Yes, that being a real, palpable conflict in this narrative tells you everything about how wacky this experience is. This sparring match also provides one of the most darkly disturbing moments in the film—and that’s saying something!
Eggers has once again constructed a piece which revels in absorbing, mysterious imagery and sound design. It’s not a horror film until you realise it most certainly is. It’s not horrific in a supernatural sense like The Witch, but this is a horror film in that it’s so unnerving due to the unbridled chaos taking place on screen. Honestly, it becomes so utterly chaotic and disturbing that I wanted to divert my eyes and take a breath for at least a minute. Eggers doesn’t give you a chance to do that. It’s an overwhelming experience which makes its 110-minute runtime seem longer than it is. It feels like you’re viewing someone’s nightmare taking place after a hangover on the beach. Well, I can only assume that’s what it is anyway.
As expected with Eggers, there’s fantastic craft on display, especially thanks to 35mm cinematography from Jarin Blaschke. Shot in the 1.19:1 aspect ratio and filmed in black-and-white, it feels all the more old-timey and atmospheric, along with the film having a fair share of hallucinogenic imagery which only adds to the otherworldly aesthetic. The choice of aspect ratio really gives everything a claustrophobic, unnerving feel which permeates every frame.
As for the narrative, there really isn’t much beyond bickering, anger and chaos between the two leads. Thomas gets Ephraim to drink with him at night resulting in truly bewildering results. While Ephraim is introduced as a very reserved figure, once he lets his guard down thanks to the seemingly never ending supply of alcohol, he lets loose. Thomas and Ephraim argue, bicker, joke, scream and frequently fart. All of these acts eventually devolve into absolute insanity. It’s these frequent hijinks which occasionally feel a bit too overwhelming. It’s hard to criticise though because it’s clear that Eggers and his brother, Max Eggers’ intention in the screenplay is to overwhelm the audience, but I would’ve liked a few more quieter moments in between all of the chaos.
What Eggers does is provide a showcase for Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson to unleash some of their wildest, most primal instincts as actors. Pattinson has evolved into a superb, highly regarded performer over the past decade and his work here only cements why he’s so good at his craft. He starts this film as a low-key figure, but it’s once Ephraim is released out of his shell where Pattinson really goes above and beyond. There’s an insanity in Pattinson’s eyes, and you can feel him breaking throughout. He’s a brilliantly physical performer, and there’s a fierce, angry level of intensity in his performance. Coming off his subtle and mellow performance in High Life last year, it’s great to see Pattinson unleash real fury and menace. Dafoe is also haunting in this part, with unbridled rage and mania reeking off every bit of his performance. As for playing off each other, they’re both brilliant. It’s basically a boxing match of physical gestures and anger, and while it’s absolutely exhausting, it’s also compelling in the most disturbing of ways.
The Lighthouse will absolutely not be for everyone. Even throughout I was wondering whether I was on board with the chaos. It’s just fantastic to see films as ambitious and weird as this be made. As a studio, it’s clear that A24 trust Eggers as a visionary filmmaker. He’s a director who brings a sense of ominousness to every frame of his work. He doesn’t want to put his audience in a comfortable position, even for a horror film. There’s a sense of doom from the outset, and while you may want to walk out in disgust, it’s a hard film to take your eyes off. Welcome to an abyss…a nightmarish abyss.
The Lighthouse hits Perth cinemas on February 6.