Rating: (3 stars)
“The Lighthouse” doesn’t ask viewers to dive headfirst into its murky waters. Rather, the hypnotic sophomore film from director Robert Eggers washes over its audience, one unsettling wave after the other.
The 36-year-old Eggers wielded that same methodical pacing to great effect with his disturbing debut, “The Witch.” Whereas that film found Puritan New England to be fertile ground for slow-burn horror, “The Lighthouse” keeps the location, but shifts its time period to the late 19th century. What unfolds is a perverse odd-couple tale, flooded with ornate dialogue, surreal storytelling and nightmarish imagery.
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play mismatched lighthouse keepers in a film that essentially functions as a two-man show. Dafoe’s Thomas Wake is the sea dog tasked with overseeing the lighthouse on a remote island off the coast; he’s authoritative, superstitious — and quite flatulent. Pattinson plays a former timberman named Ephraim Winslow, who is just looking for an honest wage doing chores and manual labor under Thomas’s supervision.
The duo’s stint is supposed to last four weeks. As stir-craziness settles in, the passage of time becomes foggier than the shoreline. “Boredom makes men to villains,” Thomas says over one of their many uncomfortable dinners. But the two men are more needled by each other than the isolation. The revelation that Thomas’s previous partner died after descending into insanity doesn’t exactly speak well of his management prowess. And Ephraim’s deranged clash with a seagull — despite Thomas’s warning that harming a seabird is bad luck — pits an angry Mother Nature against them.
The film is technically immaculate. The black-and-white presentation and shrunken aspect ratio give “The Lighthouse” a throwback aesthetic that matches the movie’s mythmaking ambition. The sounds of creaky floorboards, howling winds and roaring machinery lend an almost palpable specificity to the setting. Mark Korven’s foreboding score — punctuated with blaring foghorns — sounds the alarm that something is amiss.
Eggers and his brother, Max Eggers, wrote the darkly comic script, which puts Thomas and Ephraim on parallel paths to madness. Thomas, with his worship of the lighthouse’s beam, is on his way there from the start. Emasculated by Thomas’s relentless orders, Ephraim develops a manic desire to claim the light for his own. The men bond and come to blows, amid erotic undertones.
Dafoe, in the midst of a career renaissance thanks to his empathetic turns in “The Florida Project” and “At Eternity’s Gate,” growls his way through a gloriously unhinged performance. But Pattinson gets to truly unravel, as his character’s restrained nature slowly gives way to all-out hysteria. It’s within Ephraim’s (seemingly) crumbling mind that Eggers introduces the film’s most disconcerting images: of sirens, sea monsters and other horrors.
The legend of Prometheus casts a shadow as “The Lighthouse” builds toward its unfortunately esoteric conclusion. The film also evokes “The Shining,” with its cabin fever and the ominous appearance of an ax. Following in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick’s classic, Eggers expertly manages the psychological terror, blurring the line between reality and mania.
Earlier this year, horror auteurs Jordan Peele and Ari Aster both followed up celebrated debuts (“Get Out,” “Hereditary”) with fulfilling second films (“Us,” “Midsommar”). With “The Lighthouse,” Eggers has followed suit. In a cinematic age defined by the sequel, remake and reboot, this filmmaker’s idiosyncratic vision represents a beacon of light shining through the mist.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains sexuality, nudity, violence, disturbing images and some crude language. 108 minutes.