Four years ago, Robert Eggers wowed audiences with his painstakingly period accurate 17th Century-set chiller, The Witch, a truly remarkable debut by any standards. It’s been a long wait for his sophomore effort, but The Lighthouse is more than worth it, a thunderous crash of mania, myth, and filth that is so staggeringly accomplished and unique that it feels like it’s been let out of a secure vault by mistake. Nothing about it quite makes sense on paper, but in practice it’s ferociously absorbing and absurdly compelling, a wild ride that has to be seen to be believed.
The premise is deliciously simple – strand Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in a storm-ridden 1890s lighthouse and watch them lose their minds. There are haunting visions and buried pasts, but for the most part, the story never gets much more complicated than that. Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow, the junior of the men, is our protagonist, and we see Eggers’s mad, retro-dystopian world through his eyes. Winslow’s days are spent in the hellish bowels of the lighthouse, a cacophony of metal and steam that is shockingly oppressive no matter how many times we visit. Meanwhile, Dafoe’s Thomas Wake mans the lamp itself, but both men grow jealously, even sexually, attached to the light.
Pattinson and Dafoe give a pair of titanic performances, utterly unafraid to dive right into the freakiest tendencies of Eggers’s nautical slang-heavy script (co-written by Eggers’s brother, Max). As the men repeatedly go to war and make up before resuming their plots against one another, our sympathies shift constantly, Dafoe’s baleful eyes, hidden behind a huge thicket of facial hair, bringing a tragic humanity to even his maddest rants about Poseidon. Pattinson, meanwhile, harassed by both a horny mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) and a mean bastard of a seagull, reaches a Daniel Day-Lewis level of fevered intensity as he masturbates furiously and screams about foreskins.
The Lighthouse is a gross ride, almost as concerned with bodily functions as Pattinson’s other masterpiece to release this year, High Life. This omnipresent grime is brought to disgusting life perfectly by the austere, claustrophobic aspect ratio and the grainy monochrome in which it is shot. In lacking colour, Eggers draws the light itself to the foreground, and renders all the blood, piss, and other excreta a blackened, Lovecraftian ooze that exudes as much menace as stink. The Lighthouse is not a horror in the same vein as The Witch – it seeks to confound and disorient as much as scare – but that doesn’t stop its island from being a deeply unsettling place.
What did come as a surprise is just how funny it is. You’ll be laughing at its jokes just as often as wincing at the violence and grotesquery or wondering what’s behind the house’s locked doors. As Winslow and Wake yell insults and interrupt one another, backed by their monstrous and spindly shadows, The Lighthouse mixes its German Expressionist aesthetics with outright farce, like FW Murnau directing an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Eggers is never shy about letting his influences be known, from Weimar cinema to far older touchstones like Moby Dick and Greek mythology. He uses these legendary inspirations to conjure some truly divine imagery in amongst the muck, made all the more stunning by their proximity to the profane reality in which Winslow and Wake find themselves. It all escalates into a demented, near-abstract finale and a breathtaking epilogue that provide some of the film’s most brain searing visuals. The sound is also exceptional, foghorns ringing out through the score like interruptions from the sea monsters that Wake fears. Clanging, squelching, and screaming make up a lot of the soundscape, but Eggers also finds room for quiet contemplation and boisterous shanties.
How much is real and how much is Winslow’s fevered paranoia (pushed into overdrive by Wake’s gaslighting and the pair’s makeshift drink of lamp oil mixed with sugar syrup) is somewhat open to interpretation, but Eggers never lets this get in the way of visceral action and storytelling. There are hints of the supernatural, but The Lighthouse is mostly grounded in reality, albeit a reality infected by the poisoned minds of lonely, hallucinatory men who try to have sex with inanimate objects.
There is a genuine joy in watching a film made by someone in such complete mastery of their craft. No matter how wild it becomes, Eggers maintains a sensational control of his tone and story. When we first meet Winslow and Wake, the pair look directly at the audience, eyeing us up to check if we’re ready or even worthy to meet The Lighthouse head on. It might seem like an overly audacious beginning, but as the insanity reaches its crescendo, you’ll find yourself reconsidering your initial answer. This is an astounding piece of cinema that looks, feels, and sounds like nothing else.