Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe engage in a spirited battle of wills playing a pair of lighthouse keepers who go increasingly mad on a remote outpost off the coast of New England in “The Lighthouse,” an effectively atmospheric thriller whose slow pacing might lead some viewers to go as crazy as the central characters.
With his second directorial outing, filmmaker Robert Eggers follows up his knockout debut “The Witch” with this bone-chilling period piece that doesn’t hide its seafaring literary influences but merges style and story to create something distinctive albeit polarizing. Working from a script he co-wrote with his brother Max Eggers whose influences range from Herman Melville and Andrew Wyeth to Fin de Siècle poetry, “The Lighthouse” succeeds in inviting viewers into the increasingly delusional mindset of its beleaguered central characters, at times to the detriment of the overall narrative. Still, the spooky atmosphere that Eggers is able to achieve with the help of his return collaborators, including hauntingly beautiful black and white camerawork from Jarin Blaschke and effectively eerie production design by Craig Lathrop, is enough to make this unsettling endeavor worth the big screen experience, and if that isn’t enough for some then the powerhouse performances by Pattinson and Dafoe definitely will be.
Set in the maritime world of the late nineteenth century, “The Lighthouse” begins when crotchety lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and his novice underling Efraim Wilson (Pattinson) arrive at a remote outpost off the coast of New England to man the beacon and perform routine maintenance on the facility. Intended to be a four-week job, Thomas makes it clear from the offing that he runs the show, while Efraim, a former lumberjack seeking a new start, is relegated to more grueling tasks like fixing the roof and whitewashing the brick walls.
Thomas’ tendency to dress down the inexperience of Efraim at every opportunity, not to mention his constant drinking and flatulence, creates a growing friction between the two, and as the weeks pass Efraim’s frustration with his superior begins to boil over. While the grumpy lightkeeper and his hardheaded underling engage in a heated power struggle, a seemingly endless storm causes a delay to their departure. All the while, the fractious pair is plagued by supernatural happenings around the island that may or may not be a figment of their imaginations.
Despite the unsettlingly hallucinatory nature of the storyline, writer-director Robert Eggers continues to impress with his assured directorial style that invites viewers to follow him down his distinctly dark narrative path; even when the ambiguity at hand keeps us on unsteady ground, we still feel we’re in the hands of a skillful storyteller. And while the remote setting and two-hander premise inevitably leads to a lack of traditional action, there is more than enough going on psychologically within these two well-crafted characters to keep moviegoers engaged throughout. Working once again with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, the visuals of “The Lighthouse” are nothing short of captivating, and the 35mm photography and 1.19:1 square framing brilliantly enhances the storyline’s claustrophobic vibe and transports audiences to the late nineteenth century setting.
While the filmmaking itself is enough to justify this strangely appealing supernatural tale, so too are the fully inhabited co-lead performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who are not only fully believable in their respective roles but also valiantly plumb the psychological depths of each of their conflicted characters. Spouting off brilliant monologues in drunken seafarer fashion, Willem Dafoe is flat-out mesmerizing as the testy old-timer whose obsession with the beacon he’s meant to man leads the story down some strange paths, while Robert Pattinson delivers his most impressive performance to date as the tightly coiled novice who is pushed to the brink of sanity. In a film that features both of these actors in virtually every single frame, neither one hits a single false note, which is all the more impressive given its period setting and demanding dialogue.
“The Lighthouse” is a strange but spellbinding supernatural thriller.
By Lucas Mirabella
Running Time: 110 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language.