How could writer/director Robert Eggers possibly follow 2016’s chilling and atmospheric The Witch? Well, there’s no question he’s really gone for it in The Lighthouse. This is indeed a full-throated, strange tale. Eggers locates his two characters Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) in a lighthouse off the Maine coast, a century and more ago. The film tells of their four weeks together in this remote, inhospitable place. It is fair to say, things do not go smoothly.
Eggers has made bold decisions: he employs black and white and a vintage 1.19:1 aspect ratio. As a result, the challenging surroundings dominate sound and vision. Just like their dilapidated, blasted accommodation, the two groan, shake, and howl, as they fall apart. We see them implode with painstaking inevitability. Eggers’ team from The Witch contribute skilfully. Mark Korven’s relentless, menacing music complements the enervating diegetic sounds of Winslow’s ceaseless physical labour. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography adds crazy Expressionist angles and extreme close-ups. The filmmakers hurl us far into Winslow’s tormented mind amidst the heedless rants of the deranged Wake.
And torment it is. Just as the men’s torturous time seems endless, so does the film, as it grinds repetitiously to what we sense will be a grim conclusion. We feel some sympathy for Winslow, who seems to have wound up here as a drifter. As he says, ‘I can’t find a post I could take a real shine to.’ Later, however, drunk, he spills the beans and reveals his true reason for becoming a ‘wickie’. An accident befell the real Ephraim Winslow, while he – in reality named Tom Howard – was working as a logger in northern Canada.
A driven, obsessive ‘Winslow’ cannot contain his guilt. So he throws himself into the heavy physical demands of the posting. But there will be no escape. Tempestuous conditions delay a relief vessel. Winslow begins to have hallucinations and wild imaginings. Wake pours forth long seafaring ramblings like poison. What, in a more subtle film, could be intensity and drama, becomes here annoying excess, virtually scenery-chewing. Dafoe’s grizzled, salty seadog and Pattinson’s precarious New England accent seem self-consciously stylised, certainly not naturalistic. When Winslow refers to Wake as sounding like Ahab (of Moby-Dick fame), and then cries out, “You sound like a goddam parody!” the irony is hard to miss, but we share Winslow’s growing frustration with Wake’s long, shapeless pronouncements nonetheless.
So everyone tries hard here to make an atmospheric and gripping thriller – but part of the difficulty is that very commitment. The relentless chaos, the no-holds-barred claustrophobic banging-your-head-against-a-brick-wall becomes, well, too much. The phallic symbolism of the lighthouse itself reinforces the central themes of isolation and frustration, and so we may not need the mystery of the light’s strange power, or the testosterone-fuelled physicality, or the masturbation. Everything including the kitchen sink is thrown into this story. This is a film which is surely at least half an hour too long; more could have been omitted at the cutting-room stage. A better film would have emerged.