By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson
Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers
After Robert Eggers and Ari Aster both made genre-rocking debuts with brooding, visually sinister horror-dramas of family breakdown (THE WITCH and HEREDITARY, respectively), it’s been interesting to watch them take such aesthetically distinct directions in their follow-up features this year. Where Aster’s MIDSOMMAR is a saga of community madness on a colorful, sunlit widescreen canvas, Eggers’ THE LIGHTHOUSE is a claustrophobic two-hander that boxes its leads into a square frame and depicts their travails in stark black and white. One thing THE LIGHTHOUSE does have in common with MIDSOMMAR: It sees its creator ably beating the sophomore jinx, sustaining a mood that’s every bit as entrancingly eerie as THE WITCH’s.
It also showcases one of the genre year’s—hell, the movie year’s—great performances, by Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake, keeper of the titular structure on a remote, rocky island at the end of the 1800s. Sporting a big beard and clearly relishing the chance to say “ye” a lot, Dafoe tears and chews into the part, playing Thomas like the crustiest, bawdiest, drunken-est sea captain imaginable who’s been stuck in a landbound job averting other ships from peril. It’s a marvelous, flamboyant turn that holds back from tipping over into camp because Dafoe invests Thomas with such feeling, and Eggers and his co-scripter brother Max have given this gruff and grungy man a sozzled soul and a sense of tragic history.
The catalyst that brings out his personal demons, and perhaps a few real ones, is the arrival of Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) for what is supposed to be a four-week gig as a “wickie,” taking care of the lighthouse’s oil-fueled lamp. Instead, Thomas employs him for menial drudgery, berating and insulting him and in at least one case, charging him with a task that (intentionally?) threatens his life. Pattinson has the less showy role here, but he gives Ephraim an intensity beneath his browbeaten exterior and rises to the occasion of going toe to toe with Dafoe.
THE LIGHTHOUSE is a strange kind of domestic drama between these two for a while, its horror elements slowly creeping in like the gathering clouds of a storm that threatens to strand Ephraim there for longer than the intended month. Then there are the nautical superstitions and mythology that suffuse the story, with Eggers once again making significant use of totemic animals; after THE WITCH’s Black Phillip, here there are seagulls that serve as harbingers of bad tidings, and that figure into the movie’s two most bluntly horrific moments. Eventually, there are brief hallucinations and Lovecraftian tentacles and other fleshy sights, complementing Eggers’ overall visceral approach that encompasses the basest human behavior, from scatology to self-gratification.
None of this plays as gratuitous shock value, since it’s all of a piece with the cramped, messy, marvelously tactile milieu that Eggers and his team of first-rate artisans have wrought. Production designer Craig Lathrop oversaw the construction of the lighthouse inside and out that comes across as absolutely authentic, and Jarin Blaschke’s monochromatic cinematography is so immersive and expressive, it feels more real than color imagery would have been. Similarly, Adrien Morot’s makeup effects on the quickly glimpsed fantasy creatures are state-of-the-art to the point that they completely convince as beings from another age and realm. Adding extra unease to the unsettling visuals is the excellent, dissonant foghorns-and-brass score by Mark Korven.
All of this exemplary craft helps support the actors who are front and center, and as Thomas and Ephraim descend into mutually enabled madness, THE LIGHTHOUSE becomes above all an engrossing and haunting portrait of two men succumbing to external and internal influences. While its narrative doesn’t come to concrete conclusions, the power of Dafoe and Pattinson’s characterizations, tied into Eggers’ unerringly atmospheric vision, keep you in its dark and icy grip throughout.