In The Lighthouse, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson’s Despair Becomes Our Own

Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019) (all images courtesy A24)

I could write a lot here, but there is a very basic test to determine whether The Lighthouse is worth your time. Does the prospect of watching actors Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe gradually lose their grip on reality over the course of two hours — with the attendant outsized and weird acting one can expect of both of them — sound appealing? If yes, then you should have already bought your ticket.

Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, a lighthouse keeper on a remote New England island in the 1890s. Pattinson is his new assistant, Ephraim Winslow, who is put off to learn that he’s expected to do grunt work and never touch the actual operation of the lighthouse. The two men while away their long days in isolation by working, drinking, bullshitting, and drinking some more. At turns, Wake berates Winslow for doing the work improperly, while Winslow often needles Wake over his opinions. Theirs is not an environment conducive to healthy co-working or mental stability, and Winslow soon begins dreaming of mermaids, dark magic, and Lovecraftian mysteries lurking in the forbidden upper reaches of the lighthouse.

The Lighthouse comes from writer-director Robert Eggers, whose breakout feature The Witch was praised for its formal rigor and atmospheric horror, and is credited with helping to kick off the current trend of “elevated horror.” Its fidelity to its 1630s setting was also lauded, and The Lighthouse is similarly meticulous, and not just in its production details. A too often overlooked element of period pieces is dialogue, but Eggers, drawing on a host of primary sources, has consistently striven to make his films as accurate as possible. This affectation helps make these men and their situation seem almost alien to us, even if Dafoe sounds like the Sea Captain from The Simpsons a lot of the time.

From The Lighthouse

Increasingly consumed by the characters’ deteriorating mental health, the film by no means aims for realism, but the plentiful historical details certainly contribute to its harrowing sense of tactility. Shot on black-and-white 35mm in a nearly square aspect ratio, it revels in physical labor and coats dirt, sand, muck, tar, shit, and eventually blood on seemingly everything. It’s full of things sloshing around queasily, all roiling seas and oil, with a festering pit full of offal. It’s enough to make the viewer reflexively wrinkle their nose.

At the center are Pattinson and Dafoe, running through this two-hander that one can read any number of wider issues into — age versus youth, diligence versus incompetence, self-satisfaction versus restlessness. There’s a healthy amount of subtext concerning the alternating tensions of male bonding, competitiveness, domination-seeking, and homoeroticism, all of which blurs like wood rotting into saltwater as the relationship between the two deteriorates. Pattinson starts out reasonably secure and then becomes increasingly unstable, whereas from the get-go Dafoe is chomping on the scenery like it’s his delightful old-timey pipe, and only gets more wild. He seems carved out of salt and grizzle, almost as if he’s not playing this character but rather emerged from the wine-dark depths of the sea inhabiting him. Without Pattinson and Dafoe’s increasingly riotous bickering, the movie would collapse under its own storm, but sure enough, they steer it through.

The Lighthouse is a thriller, but not really “scary.” It simmers slowly in discomfort instead. Never content to simply depict its characters as their mental health erodes, it seeks to make the viewer feel like they too are actually on the same path with them. That is the sinister taint to its immersion — it draws you in with its commitment to period specificity before trapping you there and reminding you that, in a time of greater religious fervor, far more unknowns in the world, worse hygiene, and fewer entertainments, it was all too easy for life to chew you apart.

From The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse opens in select cities on October 18.

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