I went to the Astor Theatre with a friend for a Robert Eggers double feature: last year’s The Lighthouse and his debut film, The Witch, that I was happy to re-watch on the big screen. T’was a fun night of creepy folk tales and period horror. Now that the coronavirus is shutting theatres down, it’s strange to think that this might be my last cinema outing for a while, and that the last two films I’ve watched are about people going insane and killing each other in confined spaces.
If nothing else, The Lighthouse is a unique experience that gets progressively more surreal and loopy. Shot in a million shades of grey and narrow aspect ratio that enhances the sense of claustrophobia, the film is essentially a two-actor affair. In the 1890s, a couple of men arrive to serve a shift at a remote lighthouse somewhere in New England. Thomas Wake, played with gusto by Willem Dafoe as almost like a caricature of a salty sea-dog, is the boss of the operation, jealously guarding his exclusive access to the top of the lighthouse. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is his younger subordinate, put to the duties like cleaning and repairs, and forced to tolerate the older man’s patronising attitude, long-winded sea yarns over dinner, and daily farting (for such a grim-looking film, The Lighthouse is surprisingly funny).
As Winslow toils through his days, his seesawing dynamic with Wake – sometimes antagonistic, sometimes almost friendly – comes under more strain as the movie begins to hint that some sinister supernatural forces might be at work. Winslow is pursued by a hostile seagull and has creepy visions of tentacled monsters and a sexy evil mermaid washed ashore. Add a worsening storm to the unfulfilled sexual urges and Winslow’s growing paranoia and obsession with what’s going on at the top of the lighthouse, and you get a recipe for disaster.
The Lighthouse maybe doesn’t boast much substance when you get down to it. I found it too heavily stylised to really transport you back to the era and make it tangible like The Witch managed to, and despite the actors’ utter commitment the psychological aspect feels rather slight. However, as a pure exercise in style and ambition, the film is rather marvellous. It’s a true sensory feast, from the bleakly beautiful and unsettling imagery that can often spring from the most mundane objects, to the oppressive sound design accompanying the men’s descent into madness. The movie makes great use of its stars’ unusual looks, Pattinson with his strange knack of looking like a chiselled idol one minute and almost grotesque the next, and Dafoe’s fascinating cavernous face, especially in the scene where Wake delivers a long and imaginative sailor curse while the stark lighting makes him look like a demonic creature from the very bowels of hell.
My only real beef was that, in between the old-fashioned turn of phrase and the gruff/mumbled delivery, I felt like I missed out on maybe 20% of the dialogue, and even my Australian friend said he struggled. Hopefully I can re-watch the movie with subtitles one day.
P.S. I enjoyed The Witch as well and its ending still sends the chill up my spine, but the session was marred somewhat by the loud party noises coming into the theatre from the outside.