Director Robert Eggers may only be two films into his fledgling career as a director and writer but he has already proven himself a master of psychological horror. His first feature, The Witch, placed a family in a remote and foreboding 17th century setting, exposing them to the superstitions and fears of the time, and leaving the audience guessing as to what was real and what was in the mind of its protagonists.
Now The Lighthouse, co-written with brother Max, plays on similar themes of isolation and mental breakdown transposed to a 19th century lighthouse. Don’t let its 4:3 ratio and high contrast black and white fool you, this is an incredibly cinematic film. At times, and particularly in one shot where the lighthouse is a tiny and fragile presence below a huge roiling storm, Jarin Blaschke’s superb cinematography calls to mind Wes Anderson on a bad comedown. At other points it reflects Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. In fairness however, these are shallow comparisons which do this unique fever dream of a movie a disservice.
The plot focuses on two lighthouse keepers, Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson), charged with maintaining the imposing structure. Right from the first scene both are in stunning form. Their dialogue-free introduction ends with a shot of the pair breaking the fourth wall as they look straight down the camera, portraying more in those frozen facial expressions than most actors manage with a full page of exposition.
Indeed, Eggers extracts a tour de force from both actors whose believable descent into a salty hell is punctuated with pitch black comic timing. This feels like the role Dafoe was born to play, wild eyed and full of belching, farting mania. Pattinson, whose career choices now demand attention, more than holds his own in the face of this unforgettable performance, with Ephraim veering from bemusement and rebellious staunchness to vulnerability in the blink of an eye. And that’s before things go south.
There is, however, a third player in this two-man narrative. The incredible sound, which simply has to be experienced in a cinema, not only brings the eponymous bricks and mortar to life but pulls the audience into the experience. A thunderous foghorn regularly provides a gut-shuddering dual purpose; both anthropomorphising the lighthouse and providing an ominous soundtrack to the escalating drama, almost Jaws-like in its primeval threat. Deafening mechanical screeches combine with the roar of the descending storm to deftly evoke a sense of isolation and panic. This film begs to be heard at full volume.
Eggers also seems to delight in stripping his characters back to their basest form in a variety of ways. Several early scenes feel like the director is breaking them down physically in order to create a canvas on which to paint the inevitable mental torture which follows. And there is plenty to be endured.
As the narrative progresses and we join Ephraim in questioning his reality, the film increasingly centres on the light in the darkness. Thomas’s refusal to allow him access to the lighthouse lamp becomes a consuming obsession which encapsulates Ephraim’s fragmenting mind and provides the setting for one of the most memorable moments of insanity ever committed to screen.
As previews go, this is a corker for HOME to include in its FilmFear season, and I’m not surprised that it sold out two sessions in no time at all. As my fellow cinemagoers leave the screening, breathless and in need of a drink to steady the nerves, I reflect on the fact that cinema has discovered a burgeoning talent in Robert Eggers, a director with a gift for shining a light on the darkest edges of the human psyche.
The Lighthouse is released in the UK on January 31, 2020