In 2016, production designer turned writer/director Robert Eggers awed critics with his directorial debut, The Witch, a daring horror film set in the 1630s. Now, for his ferociously anticipated follow-up, he and his brother/co-writer Max Eggers have journeyed 200-some years to a rocky and remote island off the New England coast to tell a tale of isolation, envy, intimacy, wrath, and regret with The Lighthouse (2019).
Robert Pattinson stars as Ephraim Winslow. A new arrival to this rough terrain, he is to be the assistant to the senior lighthouse keeper — or “wickie” — the grizzled and garrulous Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). The two are alone on the island, but share cramped living quarters where privacy and decency is a luxury long lost. By day, Tom belligerently bullies Winslow, not only demanding he take on the grossest tasks — like cleaning the cistern or emptying the chamber pots — but also berating his efforts at every turn. If the assistant bristles, he’ll be barraged by monologues abusive, bombastic, yet poetic. And so time goes. Days pass into night. The tides ebb and flow with Winslow wearing down his time on this wretched rock, during which he experiences bizarre visions or perhaps horrid discoveries. If he dare shares what he’s seen with Tom, Winslow is rebuffed as a liar, a fool, or a madman.
Just as this worn-down young man’s deployment is scheduled to end, a merciless storm descends on the island, keeping any boat from getting in or out. Robbed of his escape, Winslow’s state of mind quickly deteriorates, aided by Tom’s mercurial nature and intoxicating influence. The two spend nights drinking themselves into wildness, leading to confessions, closeness, and bursts of violence. The strain of it all pushes them to a showdown savage and inevitable.
Pattinson and Dafoe are superbly cast as sparring partners. With a thick beard, and a thicker accent, Dafoe ravenously sinks his teeth into the raucous role of a tall-tale-spitting seaman who treats shanties as prayers, superstitions as dogma, and half-assing any task as the gravest sin under the stars. His Tom is a force of blustering machismo, powered along by a limping leg and smug righteousness. And Dafoe gives his every action — be it a jaunty jig, a brutal blow, or a spittle-slicked insult — a hairy-chested intensity. By contrast, Pattinson brews with low-broil rage, a furtive fury flashing in his eyes, as his lips twist shut, biting back a rebuttal or complaint. But as this fragile alliance shatters, so too does Pattinson’s restraint. Haunted by visions of grasping tentacles, taunting mermaids, and lobster pot horrors, Winslow bubbles over into wrath that explodes in stinging glowers, lashing limbs, and a face ripped wide by screams.
As striking as the performances within The Lighthouse are, Egger’s technique is even more astounding as he musters an atmosphere that sucks audiences into the muck and madness of his movie. Visually, The Lighthouse sets itself apart from the pack with its black-and-white film stock and an aspect ratio of 1.19:1, a nearly square frame that harkens back to the silent era of cinema. Ironic, then, that sound is such a prominent element of this film. As the movie opens on Winslow’s arrival on the island, no word is spoken. Instead, the theater fills with the sounds of this godforsaken place: the whipping wind, the droning fog horn, the crisp cry of seagulls, the clatter of coals chucked into the fire, and the unrepentant farts let loose by its crusty old-timer. When Tom finally speaks it initially seems like a reprieve from the oppressive soundscape that screams in various forms. But with his words comes a new kind of audio violence as he grimly tells horrid stories or spews invectives.
Eggers chosen aspect ratio, which looks so out-of-place in the wide-screens of modern movie theaters, serves to make all this noise all the more stressful. It’s narrow window gives a sense of the claustrophobia and cabin-fever its harried heroes endure. Their quarters and close-ups are made all the more cramped by a frame that pushes them nose-to-nose, a position in which they can only fight or fuck. The tension between the two is heated in more ways than one, so it’s hard to predict which it might be.
Meanwhile, the use of black-and-white brings a startling texture to The Lighthouse. In shades of grey, the bristle of beards, the rumpled wool of thick sweaters, the chipped paint on tin cups, and the grain of wood is all so pronounced, it seems you could reach out and stroke it. By contrast, there’s the slipperiness exposed in the sludge of seaweed, the blood of a battered bird, and the rope of ejaculate spewed from a not-so-private seaman time. This exhibiting of texture plays upon the audience’s sense of memory to give us a powerful means to ground ourselves in the reality of this experience, to plant our feet and fingers into this place. And that makes the surreal sequences of The Lighthouse all the more mind-bending, as our understanding of texture is applied to strangeness we can’t quite grasp.
All of this brews together to create an atmosphere so thick you practically choke on its stench of piss, rot, farts, and cum. It’s not enough for Eggers to show you the gruesome details of this grim vocation. He wants you to carry its harsh horrors home in your nostrils, where it might haunt your sleep like the damned drone of that foghorn. At first, it’s annoying, a blaring thing demanding our attention relentlessly. As this twisted journey trudges on, it transforms into something familiar, and thereby strangely comforting, a constant that sounds as homebound beacon for whatever terrors might come. But there is a horror in that as well, suggesting the drone is indifferent to all that goes on in this tower, on this island. And so too with its ever spinning, ever pulsing eye shining sea-smoked light onto all, seeing harmony and horror, unblinking and unmoved. In this realm and that of cinematic horror, it’s proxy enough for the very eye of God herein forbidden.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com