If The Witch was Robert Eggers’ cinematic interpretation of a ‘New-England Folktale’, The Lighthouse is an archaic, 19th century, sailors’ sea shanty brought to the screen. Yes, that’s right — the new atmospheric, slow burn, character-driven, A24 released horror film is here with a substantial October opening and a potential low CinemaScore. What it does have, however, is a strong two-man show, a square 1.19:1 aspect ratio, and a deep love for the visual motifs of the German Expressionist movement; Through that, Eggers successfully harkens back to a horror era gone by whilst still offering enough originality, drama, examinations of masculinity, sexual frustration, and plenty of bodily fluids along the way. That’s a pretty stormy sea to navigate! Avast, me hearties.
In case you were wondering what the hell The Lighthouse is actually about, the plot details and trailer for the film are vague for a reason. The film opens with two lighthouse keepers, the ever-iconic Willem Dafoe, and the newly accepted indie darling Robert Pattinson, as they arrive at a remote New England island. Soon, they are stranded by the onslaught of a storm where their sanities are tested and all concept of time gets lost in the ether. Terrorized by shreiking mermaids and angry seagulls, the relationship between the two lighthouse keepers shifts with nearly every scene in hellish isolation and the deep repression that comes with it.
If you are familiar with Eggers’ debut, The Witch, you’d understand Eggers is committed to his period aesthetics. He has his actors speak in ye olde tongue, and every mannerism, voice inflection, accent, and piece of slang is accounted for — but on top of that, The Lighthouse decides to be a lot less straightforward and more minimalist than The Witch. The result is a film that can be a bit hard to swallow (not unlike Dafoe’s lobster) but relishes in being a bizarre, Lovecraftian, atmospheric and performance-driven showcase that’s fascinating to see unfold.
Let’s get one thing straight: this movie is incredibly horny. There are certainly some other ideas the movie tackles, for example, masculinity, power dynamics, and violence; but those are all tangential to how extremely horny Eggers’ homoerotic seaman movie is. There are multiple scenes of Pattinson masturbating, intercutting images of mermaid vaginas (modeled after closely studied shark vaginas), gratuitously sexy shots of Pattinson’s physique and aggressive facial hair. There is a scene that only makes me assume that every horror director associated with A24 is competing to create the strangest sex scenes put on film. The more subtle elements of sexuality are Freudian in approach: the phallus lighthouse, the logs, the pipes, cigarettes, the keys and holes, the gross looking dinners but specifically the lobster, the aphrodisiac of the sea. The Lighthouse does not stop pummeling the sexual imagery down your throat and it is absolutely essential to the eventual descent into madness that Eggers is guiding us towards. Two grown men lost on an island at sea means pent up, sexual repression and the performance of that frustration manifests in their relationship. It’s hardly subtextual, but it never feels hokey.
There are no two men better for the job than Pattinson and Dafoe. Watching these two experts bounce off each other is an utter delight, and while the meticulously painted frames and layers of production design reminds us that this is a cinematic experience, this could easily still be engaging to watch just as a stage production starring these two actors. Pattinson continues to shine in making all the correct, weirdest choices to color his character but I’d say it’s Dafoe who really dominates each moment and embodies the enigmatic, nonsensical madness that the film is channeling. There is a cool meta aspect to their casting as Dafoe’s character is an experienced old man who knows his field inside out, meanwhile, Pattinson’s character is an ex lumberjack seeking to grow from his past and make a new name for himself. It could not be overstated that this is a film so minimalist that it almost lives or dies in the hands of Pattinson and Dafoe, and they sell the batshit craziness of the film, their bold personalities and olde English tongue to us in a way that is simply hard to do. Seeing them, essentially, duke it out every scene they share together is a gift to watch.
Speaking of the film’s over-the-top imagery, it’s all gorgeous. Jarin Blaschke has made the most out of every frame in this film. Any given moment of this film is so visually dense, as if these were illustrations in a picture book. The square ratio proves to be effective in portraying the headspace of the two leads as they explore a unique, nightmarish setting. The black and white photography washes out the greys and emphasizes every deep shadow, adding even more complexity to the elaborate production design. The grime of the island is so well detailed and textured in every motif that I could almost look at any location in this film and know exactly how it smells. I never exactly asked or wanted to see the inherent nautical eroticism of running a lighthouse with another man be portrayed on screen, but I’m glad it was done in Eggers’ hands.
Despite the fact that Eggers has created a different, generally much more silly and self aware film than what The Witch was, it never falls into the same sophomore film expectation trappings that most do. It’s enough of its own experience to feel fresh, but Eggers’ interests, motifs, and storytelling principles remain intact and give us an idea of who he is as a directorial voice. The Lighthouse is one well-designed vehicle for two fascinating actors, it’s hilariously silly and always aware of that, but it’s also a trippy look into male sexuality; and how the hunger festers into anguish in closed quarters. If the homoeroticism isn’t explicit enough for you, I doubt the scene of Pattinson going apeshit on a scary-lookin’ seagull will leave you unsatisfied. Arrgh!