You’ve had a hard day at work. You’ve been shoveling coal into the smug mouth of a furnace, barely clothed as the hairs on your chest are singed by the flame that pays your wages. You maintain a lighthouse. Shrugging out of clothing depressed by your increasingly contorted but toned frame, you return to a lobster cooked by your partner, an older man and drunken confidant. It tastes like shit. If there was a log book of past bickers, the lobster feud would perhaps be italicized as more of an event than usual. A bearded and dismayed Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) rises in anger at the seafood slight, launching into a Zeus-like monologue that promises to place a curse on your very existence.
Welcome to Robert Eggers’ second feature length film, The Lighthouse. Equal parts cabin fever dark comedy and folk horror, The Lighthouse centers around Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow and Dafoe’s Thomas Wake. Just as the dialogue in Eggers’ The Witch, they speak in an early modern form of English – Winslow and Wake volley off insults and secrets in a crusty sea-dog English akin to a demonic Mr. Krabs. Dialogue jogs along like a fiddle with rusty strings, interrupted by Mark Korven’s creeping score and the ever-present moan of the lighthouse itself. A sound intended to warn sailors of the treacherous rocks nearby, the lighthouse horn also acts as a haunting motif in the impeccable sound mixing of the film, warning the audience about something that cannot be spoken.
Visually, The Lighthouse plays out in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio with a black-and-white hue, as if the film itself had been coated with the same coal dust that seeps into the stressed physiques of its two leads. As the story rolls towards its conclusion with the gusto of a crashing wave, the moving image throws the idea of a reliable narrative further out to sea. Inverting colors and distorting sound as if the lighthouse was a black hole, crushing its inhabitants between what is and what has been. Winslow and Wake cannot cope with either idea. As such the lighthouse acts as a fatal limbo, silently massaging the anxieties of its keepers to the point of paranoia, drunken hysteria and madness.
Pattinson and Dafoe appear to us first through an oceanic fog and in some ways, that’s where they remain for the 110 minute runtime. It’s almost impossible to fully understand the motives of both characters against the pull of the island itself, which has such character to warrant an acting credit. The screams of seagulls and other creatures interrupt the already corrupted psyche of the two men. Rustic quarters moan and leak against the onslaught of sea-faring weather and homoerotic violence. Dafoe has the malleable complexion of leather; conveying degrees of anger, admiration and confusion with a masterful agility frame to frame. Pattinson’s Winslow carries a simmering stoicism that plays off against the black wit of Thomas Wake in a frequently disarming way. Just as tensions seem to rise to irreparable levels, the pair engage in a gallows humor that temporarily subdues the darkness.
Winslow and Wake may share a fabled identity with the native seagulls – who are said to be the ghosts of dead sailors – but their trajectory feels more like the mating ritual of a Bald Eagle. Talons locked, diving at rapid speed towards the ground, the birds might share a mutual fate due to the nihilistic eroticism of their contract. It is hard to tell whether the cost of a premature separation or late conception of the two men would be more devastating. Winslow’s anxiety to escape the island is matched only by Wake’s dedication to duty and the fear of being alone. This conflict adds weight to the later interactions between the pair, who engage in increasingly revealing and vulnerable conversations.
The Lighthouse climaxes as if drunk from a bootleg cocktail of these themes. Its conclusion is only predictable if you can descend into the twisted logic of the island and its mythology. Therein lies the challenge of this well-constructed horror, best articulated by Thomas Wake: Learn the lyrics of those ancient sea shanties, man your post and whatever you do…
Don’t spill your beans.