Robert Eggers delivers on the promise of his acclaimed 2015 slow-burn horror The Witch and then some in The Lighthouse, an altogether more playful, experimental, and assured work. Set during the late 19th century, Eggers’ sophomore feature centres on lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), who have been sent to a stormy, remote island off the coast of New England for a month-long spell. The experienced Thomas lords his position of authority over newcomer Ephraim, forcing him to perform the menial chores he has no interest in, such as cleaning out the chamber pots, mopping the grimy floors, and scaring off flocks of seagulls. It’s hard, physically demanding labour, and Eggers captures the strain through a series of intensely visceral images, awash in sweat, sea water and heavy mist.
The taciturn Thomas, meanwhile, spends all of his time drinking liquor, singing sea shanties and telling (likely fabricated) stories about his days at sea. He also strictly forbids Ephraim from entering the chamber where the light itself lay, leading the younger man to believe that something nefarious may be being kept up there. Damian Volpe’s dense aural landscape also deserves special consideration here; it’s a delicately layered, discordant assortment of squalls, crashing waves, and fog horns which elevates the sense of threat underlining the images.
Ephraim’s paranoia, isolation and exhaustion soon combine to produce wild hallucinations, most of which combine erotic and nightmarish imagery into genuinely indelible surrealist passage. Thankfully, the tools used to create a feeling of dread here are far more imaginative and multifaceted than in the one-note, overly self-serious The Witch. The Lighthouse is light on narrative, instead focusing on fully immersing the viewer into this hellish setting. It brutally establishes a bleak atmosphere and brutal rhythm, a tangled web of obscure sound and light drifting in and out of clear perception. Throughout, Thomas regales Ephraim with tales of his previous assistants who were unable to stand the toil of life at sea, and ultimately descended into madness.
As Ephraim’s mental state gradually disintegrates, the visual language of the film becomes increasingly phantasmagorical, as expressionistic symbols — such as an ominous seagull that taps incessantly on his window and visions of the lighthouse’s beam — dominate the visual landscape. Simultaneously, his relationship with Thomas grows increasingly threatening and sadistic. A masterfully controlled mood piece, The Lighthouse always seems to be on the verge of lapsing into an explosion of violence, but never quite does. Instead, the feverish claustrophobia and the relentless clash of wind, dirt, and metal escalate until it becomes nearly unbearable. The level of detail on display in the mise-en-scène is astonishing, creating the impression of the fictional island as a real, lived-in environment rather than a simple bundle of empty period signifiers.
The Lighthouse was shot on black-and-white, orthochromatic film stock in boxy 1:1 academy ratio. It’s a decision which may have the ring of aesthetic affectation, but Eggers fully explores the textural possibilities of celluloid in conjunction with the harsh elemental properties of the environment to produce a haunting visual cacophony. Interior scenes are shot in low lighting conditions, sometimes only allowing for a small patch of the frame to be illuminated, while other times allowing for the screen to be consumed by an exhilarating pattern of chiaroscuro. The Lighthouse clearly draws on the tradition of silent era expressionist horror, but this is not just an exercise in nostalgia – Eggers absorbs predecessors into a distinct, authorial vision of ravishing savagery.