Sailors have long spoken of the doldrums, a patch of windless ocean, where masted ships drift to a slow, frightening halt. Stuck on these still seas, there was the very real specter of madness and misery–death by sun-drenched starvation. In The Lighthouse, we see two men stranded in their own version of this hellish phenomenon: An island, surrounded by pounding waves and churning clouds, that plunges them into an extended stretch of isolation and despair. This separation has a profound effect on their sanity, their humanity, and their patience for each other’s tics and flaws. For anybody looking for a smart, nuanced, and truly unnerving horror film, The Lighthouse fills that bill, and then some.
The film takes place long ago, somewhere off the coast of New England. Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a sullen young man who takes a four-week stint manning the island’s lighthouse. His boss, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), comes across as a stern coot who growls his orders in the briny vernacular of an old sea dog. They immediately run afoul of each other: Winslow grows weary of Wake’s henpecking and incessant chatter, while Wake sees Winslow as a dim-witted loafer.
As the two men continue to spar, they find themselves drawing inevitably closer to each other. They get drunk and reveal their secrets. A kind of shambling respect develops between them. Along this journey, their confinement begins to fray their already-brittle psyches: Winslow begins to have visions of a mermaid and dead bodies washing ashore. Wake grows increasingly hostile toward Winslow’s work ethic. Their emotional tension boils with each day they occupy the lighthouse, until it ultimately bubbles over.
The Lighthouse is a film of beautiful severity: Black-and-white cinematography gives rich detail to the lighthouse and the landscape around it. The living quarters stay locked in an ever-damp darkness. Frigid sea mist pierces the air. The soundtrack and score abet this atmosphere of despondent depravity: The wind howls through the speakers. A booming island horn engenders a feeling of relentless, rhythmic dread. Seagulls sing in dissonant, piercing shrieks. The film’s music often forms a duet with this cacophony, making for an appropriately unsettling experience on the ears.
As the only two speaking parts, Dafoe and Pattinson don’t disappoint. Pattinson conveys Winslow’s descent from aloof and mild-mannered to unhinged madness with surprising bravery and precision. As for Dafoe, this is an entirely new kind of nutball for him: Wake is lively, eccentric, and repugnant–often in the same scene. The script, by brothers Robert and Max Eggers, supplies supple, theatrical monologues for both actors, and they respond with big, Oscar-worthy flourishes.
All this description might make The Lighthouse seem stage-bound, but I found it to be a highly cinematic experience. Director Robert Eggers goes for sweeping pans, extended tracking shots, and wide looks at the open sea. I’m a sucker for old-school filmmaking, and I love the Nouvelle Vague feel that The Lighthouse has in every scene.
Now that I’ve raved about this film, I’ll go ahead and slap a warning on here: The Lighthouse involves men doing ghastly things in desperate circumstances. It’s not for the squeamish. Where most modern horror movies rely on disposable jump scares and cartoonish violence, The Lighthouse means to rattle your cage and make you think about it for days. Fans of the genre, take note: This is fright, done right.
109 min. R.