Four years ago, Robert Eggers terrorized audiences with his eerie slow-burn horror film, The Witch. Now Eggers is back to menace audiences for a second time. His new movie, The Lighthouse, is an uncanny black and white psychodrama that explores the perils of guilt, envy, and isolation.
The Lighthouse sees two of today’s most daring actors dive headfirst into some wild material. Thomas (Willem Dafoe) is a craggy lighthouse resident who enlists the much younger Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) to join him for a few weeks of solitary work. Their job is to man an isolated post somewhere off the New England coast. Sounds easy enough, right?
Thomas is a hard-drinking, cantankerous, serial farter who gives no f*cks about hurting his subordinate’s feelings. And Ephraim, clearly battling his own demons, isn’t equipped to handle a cranky old bastard like Thomas. Eventually, the two men clash, and amidst their conflict, spiral into madness.
What plays out, at times, looks like The Three Stooges as directed by David Lynch. Eggers delivers all the chills you expect from a horror flick, but the actors’ performances do cross over into Loony Tunes territory. I haven’t seen an actor this talented look so unhinged since Elisabeth Moss’ turn as Becky Something in Her Smell. For better or for worse, The Lighthouse features two gifted actors going off the rails.
The movie’s sheer zaniness reminds me of Ari Asters’ sun-kissed horror movie fever dream Midsommar. Midsommar’s heightened atmosphere and extreme violence get so bonkers it crosses over into comedic territory. These tonal shifts are what helps both films get under your skin and claim squatters’ rights. What’s more jarring than the moment your dream suddenly becomes a nightmare? Eggers deploys these sharp tonal schisms to keep viewers off-balance.
I didn’t enjoy this picture, but I do respect it. I slowly tuned out watching Thomas and Ephraim’s drawn-out downward spiral. And to be fair, once I’m away from the grind of a film festival; late nights and back-to-back-to-back screenings, this film may yet capture me in its cold black grip. But for the moment, the best I can do is appreciate Eggers’ impressive skillset.
This director gets his hooks in you by constructing a believable world in painstaking detail. Eggers’ background in production design comes through in the amount of texture in Thomas and Ephraim’s reality. Everything from the men’s tattered mattresses to their cabin’s creaky floorboards feels weather-worn and lived in.
DP Jarin Blaschke worked with Eggers on The Witch, and he masterfully conveys the brutality of life on the island. There’s even a sense of violence to the way he captures waves crashing against the shore. Eggers chose to shoot this film in black and white and frames the action in a boxy aspect ratio, which creates a greater sense of claustrophobia and despair.
Blaschke’s striking cinematography perfectly translates the script’s mindf*ck vibe. But Mark Korven’s ominous score also does much of the heavy lifting. Like a siren’s call, it’s repulsive, yet oddly spellbinding. Play Korven’s score to a clip of a child’s birthday party, and it would feel like watching The Omen. Throw in the picture’s stark lighting, haunting sets, and wild-eyed performances, and you have the recipe for nightmare fuel.
Much like Eggers’ last film, The Witch, The Lighthouse mostly flirts with the existence of supernatural forces. Eggers doesn’t need killer clowns and Demogorgons to curdle your blood. Those creatures lose their power over audiences once they exit the theatre and step back into the real world. The Lighthouse’s brand of scares is far more insidious. The film plants a sinister time bomb deep in your subconscious and then gnaws at you for days. Eggers isn’t satisfied messing with you for 110 minutes, he wants to haunt you for the long haul.