Director Robert Eggers burst on to the scene in 2015 with The Witch, quickly establishing himself as having an eye for genre, not to mention the ability to wring tremendous performances from his actors. Four years later, his follow-up, The Lighthouse, offers further proof of his skill, creating a chaotic, claustrophobic modern masterpiece anchored by two of the best performances of the year.
Co-written by Eggers and his brother Max (some of the dialogue is adapted from the later works of Herman Melville, as well as personal accounts of actual lighthouse keepers), and expertly shot in black and white with 35mm film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, the paranoid motif is established right from the off, as Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrive at the titular lighthouse on a small spit of rock in the middle of the sea. Dropped off by a passing ship, the momentary crossing of paths with the duo they’re relieving is the only contact they’ll have with another human being for the rest of the film, and yet Eggers makes clear that they are never truly alone. The light is ever-present, and the two are surrounded by seagulls, not to mention a constant foghorn that would jangle the senses of the most composed of men.
The first five minutes of the film are completely dialogue-free, and yet everything we need to know about both characters is firmly established with no ambiguity. While Winslow explores his new surroundings, Wake wastes no time heading up to their shared quarters. When Winslow joins him, Wake is mid-piss over his chamber pot, finishing off with a nonchalant fart right in Winslow’s face. If that doesn’t tell you exactly where you stand, I don’t know what will.
When Wake finally deigns to speak, in a gruff seaman’s voice akin to the Sea Captain on The Simpsons (Winslow himself notes late in the film that Wake “sounds like a parody”), it is to berate Winslow and assert dominance. Winslow is new to the life of a “wickie,” and has a strong work ethic. However, he is ill-equipped to deal with a personality as strong and overbearing as Wake. In fact, Wake doesn’t even refer to Winslow by name until midway through the film, preferring to simply call him, “lad.” He assigns Winslow every menial and degrading task he can, and demeans him at every turn, looking for excuses to dock his pay. He’s slavish to his routines, and expects total obedience and fealty from his subordinate, whether it’s participating in his nightly sailor’s prayer before dinner or lugging an entire barrel of kerosene up the lighthouse stairs (only to mock him with a smaller container to make the job easier).
As the job is only for four weeks, Winslow takes most of the abuse in stride. Still, the isolated conditions do take a toll on him. He hallucinates images of mermaids and tentacles, and he’s beyond sexually frustrated. He’s also forbidden to go into the main chamber of the lighthouse to manage the lamp, a pleasure Wake reserves only for himself. And he’s particularly tormented by a one-eyed seagull, who continually blocks his path and attacks him. Wake forbids Winslow to kill the gull, as he believes in the superstition that seagulls are the reincarnated forms of dead sailors, and that to do so would bring terrible bad luck. When Winslow finally snaps, the winds change and a storm comes in, preventing ships from approaching to bring relief or supplies. It is at this point that the cabin fever truly sets in, and the horrors really begin.
Dafoe and Pattinson are a match made in Heaven for this film, playing off each other beautifully as they descend into the Hell of their own madness. As the storms rage, their behaviors turn more and more primal. A simple back-and-forth, where the two only say the word, “What?” to each other devolves from acrimonious civility to one step above warring apes. The aspect ratio only aids the sense of claustrophobia, as the pair are literally boxed in the entire time, similar to the self-loathing solitude experienced by Ethan Hawke in last year’s underrated achievement, First Reformed.
The pair alternately bond and spar depending on the mood of the moment and the level of alcohol in their respective systems. As the plot thickens and uncomfortable truths get revealed, the drama only intensifies, neither side giving an inch. It’s a transcendent tête-à-tête that’s so rarely seen in film today, resulting in what may be the best performance of Willem Dafoe’s career, and what I can definitively say is the best of Robert Pattinson’s to date. A true master of the craft showing down with a quickly-developing great is a treat indeed. Apart from the accents (in addition to Dafoe’s grizzled voice, Pattinson affects the most stereotypical New England accent this side of Peter Griffin), these two performances are among the gold standard of 2019 cinema, and honestly, this would be a compelling play on an intimate stage.
This is by far one of the best films of the year, a brilliant mix of visual terror and dialogue-driven dark comedy delivered by two actors at the top of their respective games. Robert Eggers has proven that he has no sophomore slump, asserting his place among the up and coming leaders of genre. Honestly, what more can I say, other than, see this goddam movie!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What two actors would you like to see play against one another? Is your life complete now that we’ve found a way to give a mermaid a vagina? Let me know!