A lighthouse is among the most visually evocative human creations. It sticks out from a flat island, phallic and sharp. Its spiraling staircases are hypnotic. The light scatters out of the rotating lens like the sun splitting into the fragments. The cramped interiors are boxy. At the base, the ocean rises and falls like a beating heart. It’s a geometric marvel, a mechanical scream against the hurricanic power of nature.
Robert Eggers, in his masterful sophomore film, captures all of this and more. In high-contrast black and white photography, he traces the descent to insanity of a pair of early 20th century “wickies” — lighthouse workers responsible for guarding the light and maintaining the facilities. We watch them through artful, mostly-still shots: Eggers delivers both soul-wrenching close-ups and profound, almost cosmic, long shots. The look has a grainy haziness to it that recalls faded photographs from early in the technology’s history or the Lumière actualities. It’s an absolute triumph of cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, who was nominated for an Oscar for this film.
The Lighthouse also has some of the best and most wide-ranging sound design I’ve encountered in recent memory: There are so many creaks and sputters and groans that it makes you feel like you’re trapped inside the lighthouse yourself. The recurring call from the lighthouse drones and itches, as effective at escalating the sense of entrapment as any of the visuals. (I could maybe have done without the recurring farts.)
Beyond any of its absolutely marvelous physical construction, what stands out about The Lighthouse is its psychological intensity. It’s the story of a mental breakdown as rookie Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) joins seasoned Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) for a four-week wickie stint. Winslow starts by keeping his distance and following protocol, but as he and Wake grow closer and a raging storm approaches, he lets his guard down, boozing and opening up to Wake. He starts hallucinating as he imbibes, and the lines between reality and imagination blur so that neither Winslow nor the viewer can be sure what we see is real.
Both Pattinson and Dafoe deliver outstanding, award-worthy performances. Pattinson’s gradual change from even-keeled to unhinged is the gripping core of the film, full of moments and reactions and deliveries that left me transfixed. But it’s Dafoe who I’ll remember and who will be on any list I make of all-time great performances. He delivers gut-rattling ruminations that are mythological, almost Lovecraftian. Carved on his face is the power and horror of the sea. His turns in mood are hilarious and frightening. It’s a bravura piece of acting.
As the film escalates, it grows more and more abstract in timbre and tone (very David Lynchian), though still tied to some of the themes of The Witch before it, albeit with less transparency. Eggers opts for profundity by drowning us in symbols and mystery, letting viewers piece it together at their own pace, or just accept it as a parable for insanity. (I personally see themes of father-son strife, Freudian sexual impulses turned toxic, and the gnawing dehumanization of capitalism, but each of those is up for debate.)
I can’t help but wonder if its lack of thematic clarity does more harm than good. It’s one thing to give us a lot to chew on; it’s another to drown us in semi-coherent symbolism and language just for the sake of doing so, and it will take me a re-watch to determine whether that is enough to hold The Lighthouse out of masterpiece territory. There’s also a rote, grating rhythm to the film’s opening hour that is perhaps necessary for the cataclysm of the final 45 minutes, but kept me at a slight distance.
But The Lighthouse is a tour de force, among the most stirring films I’ve seen from the past decade, and one whose ultimate spot in my pantheon is something I will be reflecting on for quite some time.