In 2015, Robert Eggers' feature debut 'The Witch' hit like a bolt of clear lightning. With an uncompromising clarity of vision, he delivered an aesthetically and emotionally staggering film, where history and the supernatural collide in a fable of isolation, paranoia and entrapment. It was an overwhelming and harrowing experience, one that left me sobbing and sweating and amazed; a bolt of pure horrifying adrenaline that stands as maybe the best horror film of the last twenty years. To say that Eggers' follow-up 'The Lighthouse' was anticipated would be a gross understatement, especially after its rapturous reception at Cannes and every film festival it subsequently played at. After what feels like an eternity, Australian audiences are finally able to bear witness to his new vision for themselves, and it's every bit as glorious and insane as we had hoped.
On a remote island off the coast of New England in the 1890s, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson, 'Good Time') begins a four-week shift as an assistant to lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe, 'At Eternity's Gate'). Despite Winslow's ambitions to attend to the light himself, the cantankerous and eccentric Wake refuses to relinquish his senior role and the hierarchy keeping Winslow under his authority. As the weeks wear on, the weather turns for the worst and the isolation wears him down, Winslow begins to see through the veil of the island, Wake and his beloved lighthouse, and into the troubled depths of his own psyche.
If 'The Witch' challenged the aesthetic and thematic limits of what a horror film could be, 'The Lighthouse' pushes those boundaries to the very brink of sanity. What Eggers has crafted is a film so singular, so uncompromising and so extreme that, watching it, you feel like you're seeing something the likes of which you've never seen before. Much like his contemporaries Jordan Peele, Jennifer Kent and Ari Aster over the past year, Eggers refuses to repeat himself with his second film, and instead goes for something much grander and much more ambitious. Dredged from deep within the tradition of tales of the uncanny and unusual, 'The Lighthouse' plays like a newly-discovered lost legend, a collision of Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James and H.P. Lovecraft, a tall tale that uses careful and often baffling elements of the supernatural to unearth deep horrors of the human condition. Even Eggers' approach is a deep dive into the past, using the cinematic language of the early days of the medium to a level of success almost unmatched in recent memory.
Eggers explored the feminine in myth and legend in his first film; here, he turns his attention to the masculine, and how the iconography of maritime myths speaks to male sexuality and psychology. The most obvious is the phallic and omnipresent lighthouse itself, which Winslow and Wake dance around like a maypole. You could even reduce the film down to a battle between the two for ownership over this dominating masculine edifice. It also speaks to the most primal aspects of masculinity, that of power and dominance, and in the stifling close quarters Winslow and Wake must inhabit together, that struggle for power and dominance inevitably must turn into a battle, the outcome of which means they will either have to fight, fuck or kill one another. It's the masculine subconscious unbound, the male id manifest both in action and in image, and unleashed in unencumbered and unstoppable fury, a fury that sinks deep into the flesh and bone and sinew, cracks open the earth, dredges legends from the depths of the sea, commands the wind and the rain and the thunder. Eggers makes Winslow the protagonist, but he is an unknowable one, resistant to revealing much about himself to Wake, even his name. Who he is becomes his great secret and his great power, and to relinquish this to Wake would be to relinquish his power to him, to a man he knows will use it viciously against him. His determination to protect his position, remove Wake from his, escape his past and secure his safety begins to cripple his psyche, the island manifesting (or is he manifesting himself?) hypnotic, horrifying images hell-bent on driving him further into paranoia and madness.
To take us deep into the darkness, Eggers uses every technical and storytelling tool at his disposal. His screenplay with his brother Max Eggers is a marvel, revelling into the archaic twists and turns of 1800s New England maritime dialects, almost Shakespearean in their verbosity and poetry and crudeness, which Pattinson and especially Dafoe absolutely devour. The narrative moves at erratic bursts and fits, with long sections of contemplation and repetition driving home the maddening monotony of Winslow's tasks, before shocking with dizzying sequences of maddening, surreal and deeply unsettling sights and sounds. Much like Jennifer Kent did with 'The Nightingale', Eggers and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jarin Blaschke use the aspect ratio of the silent era, here an even tighter 1.19:1, and also shoot in 35mm black-and-white. The benefits of these parameters are endless, the aspect ratio allowing a greater emphasis on close-ups and accentuating the ever-present height of the lighthouse itself, and, along with the black-and-white photography, gives the feeling of a film plucked out of time, a cursed and crazed object of gods and madmen. Blaschke's cinematography is miraculous: a startling symphony of shadow and light akin to Murnau's 'Nosferatu' (1922) or Carl Theodor Dreyer's 'Vampyr' (1932). There are shots in this film that stole my breath away, Blaschke taking full advantage not only of the extraordinary detail in Craig Lathrop's astounding production design and Linda Muir's remarkable and palpable costume design, but the incredible faces of both Pattinson and Dafoe. His remarkable work on 'The Witch' felt pulled from a nightmare, but his work here is primal human mythology. That he was nominated for an Oscar comes as absolutely no surprise. By all rights, he should probably win.
A film plucked out of time, a cursed and crazed object of gods and madmen.
Even though the aesthetic control of 'The Lighthouse' is as complete and uncompromising as 'The Witch', the denser screenplay and the confined spaces of this film call on Eggers' skills in eliciting great performances from his actors, and here he rises even above the levels of his previous film. Within the strict parameters of his auteur sensibilities, he creates a controlled sense of chaos that asks an enormous amount of Pattinson and Dafoe while giving them an extraordinary freedom. Despite the bigger canvas and more ambitious premise, this feels like Eggers honing the specificity of his skills and his craft, challenging himself further rather than resting on his laurels, which is extraordinary considering the nightmarish conditions he subjects his cast and crew to, battling not just a tale of psychological and mythological chaos, but the unforgiving brutality of the natural world. 'The Lighthouse' asks a lot more from its audience than 'The Witch', with Eggers taking the mysterious insanity in the last ten minutes of his first film and letting that permeate into the entirety of his second, but not a moment feels indulgent or wasted. This is a truly great filmmaker pushing himself, his collaborators, his craft and his medium to the edge, driven by his convictions and his instincts. Maybe the reason you feel like you've never seen anything like 'The Lighthouse' before is because it's a film that could only have been made by Robert Eggers.
In the central roles, both Pattinson and Dafoe likewise push themselves further than we've ever seen them, and the results may be the best performances of their careers. As Winslow, Pattinson is a metal coil wound tighter and tighter, a mind and body ready to snap at any moment. His performance is a masterwork of physical command, but he justifies the lengths he is willing to push his body with the intricate and intelligent psychological performance, as prepared to sit in crumbling stillness as well as to allow for complete collapse. By contrast, Dafoe's performance as Wake is magnificently bombastic, the kind of work that could be hammy and ridiculous in the hands of any other, but in his becomes a thing of wonder. He sits at the edge of danger and madness, but you're never left in any doubt that Wake is in complete control of his faculties, only making him more imposing a threat. However, the great shock of the film is in how funny it is, Eggers punctuating the horror with some deliciously low humour, and Dafoe's perfect execution of these moments is even greater proof of his intelligence and his perfect synchronisation with the film Eggers is making. The film itself is a careful dance of two fighters circling each other, and when the crash inevitably comes, it does so with tectonic ferocity, reflected in their bodies, the island, the ocean and the film itself, resulting in a crazy and cataclysmic finale that leaves you reeling. Eggers' craft and that of his crew is obviously a major part of that, but it wouldn't be as satisfying without the incredible work of these two incredible actors.
I was worried that my enormously high expectations for 'The Lighthouse' would set me up for inevitable disappointment, but to my relief and awe, it somehow exceeded them. This is an extraordinary, baffling, hypnotic, maddening, hilarious, disturbing, disorienting, arousing, absolute mindfuck of a film, drenched in mud and sweat and salt and booze and shit and semen and piss and blood, primal screams of rage and terror, the laughter of madmen and the sobs of the damned, the cry of seabirds and the roar of the sea and the cataclysm of gods and men at war. It haunts you long after it is over, swills in your mind like an aged whisky, and in the days since seeing it, I can't tell you how desperately I want to dive back in again. After delivering arguably the greatest horror film so far this century, Robert Eggers has created another insane American masterpiece, the kind of film dreams and nightmares are made of. It was worth every single second of the wait.