From kids’ TV show Round the Twist to video game Bioshock, popular culture has painted lighthouses as, at best, weird and spooky, and at worst responsible for the complete collapse of society. Well guess what: it’s yet another bad day for the lighthouse marketing department.
Robert Eggers follows up his brilliant 2016 period horror The Witch with something even more astonishing: a stark, inscrutable film in which the frank lyricism of Herman Melville mingles with the pitch-dark imaginings of HP Lovecraft.
Willem Dafoe plays grizzled old lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, a man who tends his “dread lamp” with a paternal devotion. He drinks to excess, sings sea shanties and says things like “boredom makes men to villains”. He should be a farcical stereotype, but in Dafoe’s hands he has more layers than the sea has fathoms, changing in an instant from cruel to vulnerable to dangerous. Robert Pattinson is excellent in the film’s only other notable role, Wake’s new assistant Ephraim Winslow, a taciturn drifter with a mysterious past.
What follows is essentially a lighthouse procedural, in which the pair carry out menial tasks in order to keep the thing lit and themselves sane. We see Robert Pattinson struggling with a wheelbarrow; Robert Pattinson shovelling coal; Robert Pattinson masturbating in a shed.
There’s a fascination with the intrinsic grubbiness of the human body, with Eggers indulging every fart and excretion, his film sodden with mucky fluids. As time passes, the men become more and more animal, with escalating bouts of rage and violence, followed by the kind of drunken compassion often seen during nights out in Clapham, all slurred declarations of brotherly love. If this is a study of the male psyche, we do not come out well.
While The Witch was a relatively straightforward – albeit razor sharp – horror yarn, The Lighthouse is harder to read. There are supernatural elements, but whether they’re real or figments of two men’s poisoned dreams is open to interpretation.
Shot in high-contrast black and white, Eggers’ film is ridiculously pretty: you’ll want to take stills of every frame and hang them on your wall (well, apart from the ones filled with excrement or semen or horrifying nightmare visions).
Just as impressive is the sound design: we might be watching a man slowly carrying a bucket of piss across a rocky outcrop, but it will inevitably be accompanied by some kind of otherworldly honking or droning or whooshing, giving every scene a feeling of nameless dread.
Also worth noting is the aspect ratio. While early films were projected in 4:3, since then it’s been a race to the sides. The Lighthouse goes in the other direction with a virtually square 1.19:1, adding to the overall sense of claustrophobia, as if you’re trapped in, I don’t know, some kind of tall, thin building.
It all conspires to be a singularly evocative film, at once filthy and beautiful, funny and appalling. There’s nothing else like it and I love it unreservedly.