After setting the cinematic world on fire with a 17th Century prestige horror film, spoken in mostly period language mind you, The Witch filmmaker Robert Eggers had no intention of taking it easy the second time around. For his sophomore effort, The Lighthouse, the American filmmaker has crafted a 19th Century drama shot in black and white and presented in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, effectively a square. And his tale centers on just two men assigned to watch over a lighthouse on an island far off the New England coast. The 35-year-old filmmaker must realize that challenges often bring out the best in us.
The set up itself is somewhat simple. Ephram (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas (Willem Dafoe) arrive at their outpost for what should be a four-week work assignment. Thomas is a longtime veteran and, on this gig, Ephram’s superior. This the first lighthouse duty for Ephram and he soon discovers that Thomas is going to ride roughshod over him. Ephram is assigned menial tasks such as refilling the coal fire going for the near constant fog horn, delivering the oil up the long set of stairs for the tower lamp and overall maintenance of the island. Ephram finds himself replacing roof singles, painting the tower and scrubbing the floors, but it never seems up to Thomas’ standards. If that wasn’t frustrating enough for the younger keeper, he’s also strictly forbidden by Thomas to man the lighthouse itself even though company protocol instructs them to alternate watch duties.
Ephram also finds himself immediately disgusted by his new housemate’s personal hygiene. Thomas farts incessantly and toils him with the responsibility of removing his disgusting bedpan. And it turns out the elder watchman’s cooking isn’t that good either. And yet, Thomas just hopes to grin and bear it as the two men are slowly forced to be more familiar with each other because, frankly, there’s no one else to talk to.
In the context of Thomas continually pushing Ephram’s buttons, the latter begins to have some strange experiences. Upon arriving he found a small idol in his bed shaped in the design of a mermaid. He later learns Thomas’ last partner went mad and died thinking he’d fallen for such a fantastical creature. But Ephram starts to see odd things. One night he sneaks up to right underneath the top of the tower and imagines that tentacles of some kind in the room with Thomas. Another day he is convinced he’s seen a mermaid wash up on shore. When she awakes and screams at him he runs away in a panic. And then there are the seagulls who seemingly pester Ephram on a daily basis. Is this all real or is Ephram’s mind playing tricks on him under all the unexpected stress? Eggers lets you ponder the possibilities until the bitter end.
Even more so than The Witch, Eggers’ latest effort is a drama first with minor elements of genre popping in here or there with mixed results. When a major storm extends the watchers stay for an indefinite amount of time both men let loose and the truth about Ephram’s past comes to light. There are some incredible scenes with both Pattinson and Dafoe going at it, raising the stakes for both their characters and carrying the narrative thrust of the movie when it desperately needs it. These are two characters essentially marooned on an island and the bounds of social etiquette are quickly unwinding to spectacular effect.
Pattinson has been working at seemingly the peak of his acting prowess over the past two years in films such as Good Time and High Life, but he may have topped himself here. Usually known for playing the strong, silent type, Pattinson portrays with deep seeded frustration below the surface until he slowly reaches a passionate roar. The 33-year-old actor has simply never been this raw on screen before. There are moments where Pattinson is so transformative it’s jarring. You simply never thought he had it in him.
Dafoe is also superb playing Thomas as though he were channeling Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, but somehow avoiding caricature (his style of speaking is even mocked in the movie). But beneath that supposed artifice Dafoe is subtly adding surprising layers to an old man who thinks he’s a master manipulator. And when it all goes wrong, Dafoe wonderfully drops the wile, so the audience sees it too.
Not all of Eggers’ decisions work as he might have intended. A good portion of the beginning of the film finds Thomas and Ephram arriving on the island on an overcast day. This haunts the beginning of the film and is, sadly, a detriment to Jarin Blaschke’s mostly impressive cinematography. The picture is so dark for the first act you often begin to wish it was in color instead (the black and white imagery actually adds nothing to the story). The production, which shot on location in Nova Scotia, must have been found brighter days towards the end of the shoot because the imagery lightens up considerably.
Eggers also throws in a hint of homoerotic tendencies between the two men which, frankly, the movie doesn’t need. These shots are so slight that they demand more answers than are given. Especially as they do not appear to have anything to do with either character’s arcs. Why include them at all? But when you have two powerhouse actors such as Pattinson and Dafoe setting the screen on fire a lot can be forgiven.
Catch up on all of our reviews from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival below: