Robert Pattinson delivers what might be the year’s best monologue in The Lighthouse. It’s a deluge of insults, including the inspired phrase: “You smell like curdled foreskin”. Or is it his co-star, Willem Dafoe, who gets the better speech, as he repeatedly calls upon the sea-god Triton to do his bidding? Either way, the film’s a treat for both these actors, who play like giddy children with the film’s screenplay, written by director Robert Eggers and his brother Max.
The duo star as lighthouse keepers stationed on a remote New England island in the 1890s. Dafoe’s Thomas Wake is the man in charge. With the look of someone who should be emblazoned across a packet of fish fingers, Thomas speaks almost exclusively in the language of old wives’ tales and crusty parables. His beard is substantial, his drinking habits are excessive, and his accent is largely impenetrable. It’s the kind of role that only an actor like Dafoe can pull off – equal parts ridiculous, tragic, and fearsome. Pattinson, meanwhile, plays Wake’s subordinate Ephraim Winslow. He’s quiet and mostly just eager to get the job done, though he becomes increasingly resentful of the demeaning tasks Thomas assigns him, whether it’s cleaning out cisterns or emptying chamber pots. Worse still, he can’t understand why Thomas is so unwilling to let Ephraim up to the top of the lighthouse to tend the lamps. His devout possessiveness over it becomes a source of ever-mounting tension.
You can almost smell the salt and grime. This is sensory, claustrophobic filmmaking. It’s a horror film that gets its scares through a lingering sense of being trapped with these two men on this godforsaken island. Shooting in black-and-white and a tight, boxy aspect ratio creates an uneasy intimacy with the film’s characters. Meanwhile, Damian Volpe’s sound design makes good use of the lighthouse’s foghorn, as it punctuates scenes like a warning siren or the ominous call of some approaching creature, ready to swallow the place whole.
The film’s dialogue is based off the writing of Herman Melville and Sarah Orne Jewett, as well as the diaries of 19th-century sailors. As with Eggers’ last film and directorial debut, The Witch, there’s a clear desire for historical accuracy in language, look, and tone. But the film doesn’t feel stiff. There’s plenty of bleak humour and a healthy serving of fart jokes. Ephraim’s various misfortunes often have a hint of slapstick to them, whether he’s battling a particularly bellicose seagull or trying to drag a giant canister of fuel up the lighthouse stairs.
If The Witch was Eggers’ attempt to interrogate the idea of the “monstrous feminine”, a term created to describe the centuries of hysteria around women’s sexuality, then The Lighthouse might be his attempt to introduce a “monstrous masculine”. It’s a film concerned with bodily, primal impulses – filled with sweaty desire, sickly jealousy, and unbridled rage. Ephraim is haunted by visions that intermingle sex and death (there’s something alarming and a little pathetic to his furious masturbation sessions). “Boredom makes men to villains,” Thomas warns, as the isolation and savagery of their surroundings strips them down and leaves their ugliest parts exposed. Cinematographer Alex Metcalfe doesn’t shy away from darkness. It carves up the two actors’ faces in ghoulish ways. At one point, a wild-eyed Dafoe looks remarkably like Gustave Courbet’s feverish self-portrait The Desperate Man. At other times, the men look more like goblins scurrying through the night.
The Lighthouse deals with madness, but in a form that feels ancient and mythical in its nature. Eggers not only draws from the old folk tales and superstitions sailors used to cling to as the only way to bring reason and order to the all-consuming chaos of the sea, but from Greek mythology, too. There are nods to Icarus, Prometheus, and Proteus. Eggers never delineates between reality and dream, leaving us to decide for ourselves whether the island is cursed by some otherworldly power or whether this is all some kind of hallucination. In The Lighthouse, a seagull might just be a seagull, but there’s also a chance it’s a harbinger of evil. Only the sea knows.
The Lighthouse is being screened as part of the London Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas on 31 January 2020