Undefinable, haunting madness in Robert Egger’s mesmeric film that defies categorisation
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Robert Pattinson (Ephraim Winslow), Willem Dafoe (Thomas Wake)
Who’d want to be a lighthouse keeper? Weeks on end, stuck on a rock, with nothing but sea gulls and your fellow keepers for company. The cabin fever might well start to make you feel your grip on reality shifting. You’d definitely think it was a strong chance watching Robert Eggers’ mesmeric, enthralling and undefinable masterpiece, a mix of everything from Victorian shlock to Greek Mythology via MR James and Edgar Allen Poe, by way of Freud and Jung. It’s impossible to work out, horrifyingly clear and deeply, unsettlingly brilliant.
Two ‘wickies’ (lighthouse keepers) in 1890s arrive on an island off the coast of New England. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is a (self-proclaimed?) salty-sea-dog and veteran wickie. He tends the light. His assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), is a former woodworker working on contract, seemingly on the run from something. He is the island’s dogsbody and tends the mechanisms that keep the light on and turning and the island’s fog-horn blaring. These two live cheek-by-jowl, a relationship that oscillates between distrust, resentment and strange warmth.
Things take an increasing turn for the bizarre, as a storm cuts them off from their scheduled relief. Slowly the isolation, supplies failure (gin and beans are seemingly the only food sources left) tap into the psychological flaws in the men themselves. Ephraim becomes ever more consumed by visions of a horrific but sensual mermaid. Wake obsessively guards his sole access to the lighthouse tower – and, Ephraim suspects, the mysteries it contains. Their relationship crosses boundaries of longing, violence and anger.
The Lighthouse is somewhere between parable, modern myth and psychological study. You could call it a horror film – I see it more as a classic ghost story – but you could just as easily call it a survivalist film, a character study or a psychological thriller. Egger’s insidiously unsettling film-making and the sublime acting from the two leads combine to make a film ripe for interpretation, and intensely rewarding on rewatch. It’s an explosion of artistic brilliance.
Shot in a superbly atmospheric black and white – and a claustrophobic academy ratio 4:3 – it’s a film that presents one striking, chilling, unforgettable visual image after another. Inspired by silent cinema – in particular Murnau, Lang and von Sternberg, although I spotted elements of Keaton – but as if moody German expressionism was used to shoot a Rorschach test. The inky blacks, and overwhelming bursts of blinding white light, suggest unimaginable horrors lurking out of sight, while its impressionistic imagery constantly pushes us to question the reality of the film.
It all builds on the superb feeling of isolation Eggers invokes. Rooms are small and crowded with furniture. The island is a bleak rock, shorn of any vegetation. The only wildlife is an army of seagulls. The blare of the island’s foghorn is continuous – sounding like a doom-laden rumble from Hell – that seeping into the viewer’s soul. Every corner of the lighthouse station becomes achingly familiar to the viewer and somewhere you can imagine not wanting to spend a second longer than you have to.
Stretching their vocal muscles around a script (written by Eggers and his brother Max) full of rich, chewy, Victoriania dialogue by way of Beckett and Pinter (in one compellingly funny sequence, the two actors basically shout “what” at each other over and over again) both are superb. Dafoe walks a fine line expertly between realism and Robert-Newton-esque parody, as the saltiest sea-dog imaginable, who can oscillate between surly admonitions and flights of myth-filled, metaphorical fancy. Pattinson dives head first into a man who we are never sure we fully understand: is he a frustrated time-server, a violent monster, a delusional schizophrenic, a little-boy lost? Either way it’s a truly brilliant performance of Day-Lewis level commitment and immersion.
You could have a lot of fun arguing that perhaps both men are two halves of the same fractured psyche (as if Wake is a future version of Ephraim, almost as if the film is him witnessing his own origins story). Certainly, as their film progresses, their personalities and histories begin to merge. It would help explain the curious emotional bond between them: at times they seem to almost hate each other, at another a drunken fight is only inches away from a sexual encounter. They laugh at and loath each other, are mutually dependent, plot each other’s destruction but then pathetically look at each other for reassurance and praise (Wake is heartbroken when Ephraim criticises his cooking, while Ephraim both resents and worships this hard-taskmaster father figure).
It’s a suspicion that could also be incited by the all-pervading weirdness on the island. Ephraim –carrying the burden of secret crimes on the mainland – see visions of a mermaid among logs, in which sexual encounters are mixed with the mermaid’s murderous attempts to drown him. His first-day searches of the house unearth a carving of a mermaid, which seems to fascinate and repel him – he takes to masturbating (joylessly) over it in the workshop. He seems to spy Wake worshiping, naked, the light during his long-night vigils up the tower (suspicious fluids drip down from here, along with half glimpses of mermaid tentacles). In any case, Wake guards his access to the light like a jealous lover, while his faith in sea mythology becomes increasingly less of a mantra and more of a framework to understand the world.
How much is real? Or is it a sign of Ephraim’s fractured, guilty, conscious? We see most of the events through his eyes – a man we know is a thief and, most likely, a killer. There is more than enough evidence that Ephraim is lying about his past as much to himself as he is Wake. Wake too is a liar – telling at least two versions of how he ended up with a gammy leg, enough to make you wonder how much his claims of being a sea-dog are true. As isolation and constant drink – the two spend most of the second half in various states of inebriation first from gin then turpentine – kick in, and they and their surroundings become increasingly dishevelled and fart-stenched.
There are dark powers at work on this island. Echoes of Greek Myths loom – Ephraim has traits of Prometheus, fascinated by a light horded by the Gods, the very light that Wake, Proteus like, is determined to keep to himself. Wake stresses that the gulls carry the souls of dead sailors – and the unsettling persistence these pester Ephraim with, is surpassed only by the violence with which he responds to them. Elements of Victorian ghost stories, hypnotism and gothic fiction combine in every corner of a film where we see very little but get a lot implied (powerful, Eisenstein and Bunuel-style, close-ups of faces and eyes imply powerful horrors out of shot).
The Lighthouse reminds me in many ways of the best of the BBC Ghost Stories of the 1970s in their unsettling, MR James-style unexplained (even unstated) horrors. There is a palpable air of horrific tension around the film, of an unexplained, unknowable force that could somewhere destroy both men – and has perhaps unsettled their minds. The film culminates in a superb, haunting shot as Ephraim comes face-to-face with something unknown that is pure MR James: we never see what caused the horror, only its terrible results. (It’s as terrifying as Whistle and I’ll Come to You or A Warning to the Curious where blind, over-confident curiosity leads to dreadful outcomes).
Eggers film is not a conventional horror film: I believe thinking of it as a deeply unsettling exploration of man’s vulnerability and weakness, ala MR James, is key. This is a story of unseen, imagined, unsettling horrors – but also a claustrophobic relationship drama, playing out like a psychological thriller as two men dance around destroying and seducing each other. It’s a complex Rubrik’s cube that rewards constant thought and attention. Beautifully filmed, superbly acted, compelling in every frame, it can claim to be one of the most unique and powerful American films of the 2010s.