Read: ‘The Witch’ mines the terror of the unknown
The movie has just two speaking characters: Set in the 1890s, it follows Winslow, a “wickie,” or lighthouse keeper, who begins a duty shift under the supervision of the salty sea dog Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Sporting a bushy beard, a corncob pipe, and a face riddled with pocks and crags, Wake looks like a cross between Captain Birdseye and Trotsky, and sounds like a cartoon pirate. He’s practically a flesh-and-blood extension of the lighthouse itself, to the extent that his beard seems like it should be made of barnacles—and he quickly subjects Winslow to a grueling life of hard labor at the ends of the earth. Dafoe, who bellows every other line, is giving a command performance, but his more subdued co-star is a worthy match.
Pattinson is an actor who thrives when he’s playing characters pushed to their limit, including High Life’s seething space convict or Good Time’s messy bank robber. In The Lighthouse, his angular features help cast his face in all kinds of dramatic shadow; Winslow is locked in an eternal grimace, chafing under Wake’s maddening leadership. Their combative relationship is quickly complicated as Eggers begins to hint that some supernatural forces are at work—Winslow has visions of a mermaid washing ashore, while Wake seems entranced by and beholden to the lighthouse’s light, jealously guarding access to the top of the tower and possibly communing with a giant squid.
At first glance, this is an internal horror film about Winslow’s worsening paranoia and fear, and it’s a good one, told with the grand, thudding aesthetic of a silent movie. Shot in black-and-white and presented in a boxy Academy aspect ratio, The Lighthouse looks like a throwback while sounding disarmingly modern, driven by the wailing soundtrack and Mark Korven’s discordant score. Winslow and Wake’s interactions are warm at times, murderously venomous at others; there’s great humor to both Dafoe’s and Pattinson’s performances as they butt heads, sing songs and dance together, and argue vigorously about the quality of Wake’s cooking.
But this is also a viscerally romantic film, at first driven by Winslow’s sexual mermaid vision, but eventually focused on the two men’s relationship. Though their adversarial chemistry remains largely unspoken, this movie isn’t heavy on subtext; it’s loud and kooky and unafraid of looking silly, reveling in the tension between the leads. In The Witch, Eggers showed a real talent for period detail, conjuring unsettling imagery from the simplest choices of set design. In The Lighthouse, he does an incredible job of mining laughs and revulsion out of every bodily function he can, driving home the gross reality of life with two men on a desolate rock.
Are Winslow and Wake in hell, or perhaps at some way station en route to it? Are they actually being tormented by the mermaids and tentacled monsters they imagine? Or is Eggers just exploring the mania of isolation, the violent urges that can come with loneliness and sexual repression out in the middle of nowhere? He leaves those questions to the audience, but The Lighthouse doesn’t feel like a tease, nor is it half-baked. It’s a bracing squall of a movie, a briny delight that’s as amusing as it is mesmerizingly strange.