Stories of humanity raging against the elements (and going a little mad with it) have long dotted film and literature – Melville’s Moby Dick, Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner to name a few. Now, via The Witch director Robert Eggers, there is another, The Lighthouse, in which Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson battle nature as its most ferocious and wild. Playing two lighthouse keepers – or “wickies” – at the turn of the 19th Century, they journey to a remote New England Island to man a desolate station for a month. Once there, lines between reality and imagination, sanity and insanity deteriorate amid a swoon of strange goings on. During their stay, they must battle the elements, each other and – perhaps most significantly – themselves.
Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, a bearded and brutal seafaring scoundrel for the ages. A former weathered sailor, his mysterious leg injury has left him land-bound and now in charge of the lighthouse – a position he guards with terrifying ferocity. Pattison plays his subordinate, Ephraim Winslow, a former lumberjack from Canada whose arrival is shrouded in secrecy: “on the run?” Wake asks him, in between a relentless barrage of baiting and belittling. Demeaning his younger apprentice at every opportunity – Winslow is forced to empty the chamber pots, scrub the cabin and stoke the fire – whilst Wake acts as the nightly protector of the light itself, never letting Winslow near. As tempers rise and tension grows, Winslow becomes more and more curious about Wake’s infatuation with the light, as well as the island’s uncanny goings on. Eventually, he starts to question his own sanity.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Alex Metcalfe, The Lighthouse is filmed in the very bleakest black and white and in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio. Lit largely by candle, the dreadfilled horror is permeated throughout by a growing sense of claustrophobia as a tempest ensues and envelops the island, along with something altogether more uncanny. Damian Volpe’s sparse soundscapes – interspersed with the ominous howl of the lighthouse’s foghorn – mirror their growing madness and disorientation as the storm threatens to keep them on the island forever.
When moments of catharsis come, they do via a drunken Wake who entertains his younger colleague with sea-fairing tales, comedy and fart jokes. “You smell like curdled foreskin” is the standout Malcom Tucker-ism (and there are many) that Pattinson responds with. But these escapist moments are few and far between. Like the storm clouds that surround the island, Wake’s menacing temper is never far away and ready to detonate at a moment’s notice. Winslow’s only escape from his glowering colleague is via a trip to the isolated woodshed with just a mermaid statue for company. At night, his erotic dreams of the mermaid mingle with ones of gruesome death as his murky past foggies the present.
Both Dafoe and Pattinson deliver towering performances – the latter is already, rightly, being tipped for an Oscar. Eggers’ dense, literary script sees both actors orating powerful soliloquies and heady, lengthy monologues that channel Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s The Tempest but never in a way that overwhelms. Packed with fearsome parables, tragic tales and maritime jargon, it’s totally immersive. Eggers’ painstaking and extensive research into 19th Century maritime history, literature and dialects is clearly evident. The performances from both are fearless too. Their nightmare become ours, the heaviness of their situation crushingly palpable. The more time the two spend in each other’s company, the more their tempers fray amid a tirade of insults. As the story progresses, it’s clear the identity of each is threatened to be subsumed by the other.
Any danger that surrounds the two on the island is either real or imagined – we never know which. Could it be a nefarious sea creature like the ones in Wake’s folk tales coming to swallow them up? Or could it be their pasts haunting them, driving both to insanity? Or is it, perhaps most terrifyingly, their unchecked masculinity as each threatens to out-do the other? Eggers leaves it up to us to decide. In truth, it could be all three.
For horror fans, The Lighthouse should fall part way between The Shining and Moby Dick. It’s one of the most gripping horrors of recent years but not in the typical “jump-scare” manner you might imagine – if anything, this film does a good job of re-writing the genre afresh, cementing Eggers’ place as one of the most exciting new directors around. This is an extraordinary, unsettling film exploring the very darkest crevices of human nature – it will stay with you long after the final howls of the lighthouse’s foghorn sound.