“Swab dog!” sputters a dour and drunken Thomas Wake (Willem DaFoe) to a puerile and seriously shook up Epharim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) in one particularly memorable moment in Robert Eggers’ entrancingly controlled psychological horror film, The Lighthouse. Ostensibly a chamber piece set in an isolated lighthouse along the enraged sea off the North American coast in the 1890s. It’s here that two desolate “wickies” (lighthouse keepers) must survive four impossibly long weeks before their relief comes, or rather, if relief ever comes.
Eggers easily surpasses his inventive jailbreak of a debut, 2015’s The Witch, with this windswept rush of madness and confusion as chaos crumbles the minds of our two protagonists. And of DaFoe and Pattinson it really must be said, they deliver a pair of brine-mottled and mesmerizing performances.
With his peg-leg and mariner-appropriate pipe, Dafoe’s Tom is a barnacle-backed composite of deliberate salty dog clichés. His fondness for alcoholic drink, sea shanties, and terrible cooking are all the more annoying for Pattinson’s greenhorn Epharim. A Canadian expat and former logger, he’s got his own demons, least of which being Tom’s terrible and incessant bullying.
As if Tom’s constant and often literal pissing contests weren’t enough for Epharim, there’s also a one-eyed seagull with a vendetta against him as well, making it near impossible for the young lad to elude the slapstick and heady horrors that lurk in wait for him.
The barren and forsaken island in which their lighthouse stands is photographed handsomely, thanks to Jarin Blaschke’s black-and-white lensing. Eggers also shows a fondness for close-ups and a gift for cinematic portraiture, all shot in a compact 1.19:1 aspect ratio. At times this give The Lighthouse a very vintage feel, particularly some dream-like visions of mermaids that recall the prestige horror of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
The dialogue sparkles as well, often adding to the tizzy as these two men gnash their teeth and beat their chests at one another. Having been in close confines for what might as well be an eternity, Epharim’s at his wit’s end when he spits back to Tom: “I’m sick of your farts! Your goddamn, goddamn farts!” It’s funny but also grotesque in the dim light of where they, and us along with them, have gone with them. Ah, these luckless, run down wickies!
The Lighthouse is a poetic study of guilt and mania, Colin Stetson’s aptly discordant score gives further emphasis to this viable and all-consuming hysteria. Eggers has fashioned a deep, and wonderfully disheartening tale, and one as provocative as the siren call that has brought so many seafarers to such lovely ruin.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.