2019 is certainly proving to be the year for emerging Indie horror directors’ follow-up films, isn’t it? Jordan Peele followed up his universally-acclaimed quasi-horror-comedy Get Out with the much more sci-fi-leaning Twilight Zone tribute Us (which I adored); David Robert Mitchell followed up his eerie sex-themed after-school-special It Follows with the polarizing neo-noir Under the Silver Lake (which curiously went to Cannes unedited); and Ari Aster followed up his demonic family portrait Hereditary with the psychedelic, bloodletting Eurotrip Midsommar (which should never under any circumstances be viewed with grandma). Now, Robert Eggers has followed up his highly-effective period horror The Witch with a fresh article-noun arrangement called The Lighthouse, a psychological horror that is already being hailed as a masterpiece by those who have acknowledged its existence.
Alas, the proprietor of my hometown’s Theatrical Symposium for Degenerate Fancies was not one such person, having deemed the Zombieland sequel that no one asked for the preferable feature to screen. Incidentally, our Symposium bears many striking similarities to Eggers’ nightmarish lighthouse – it’s filthy, it’s drafty, it’s beset by cantankerous seagulls, and its employees are presumably forbidden access to the proprietor’s inner sanctum that is the projection room under pain of an axe murdering.
Be forewarned – spoilers about in plenteousness.
The film’s titular lighthouse (situated on a bleak island somewhere off the New England coast sometime near the tail-end of the 19th century) is occupied by a grizzled Willem Dafoe and a mustachioed Robert Pattinson, whose characters bear appropriately bland Biblical names. The former is a gleefully irascible, micromanaging old wickie whose nautical verbiage rivals that of Captain Barbossa, and the latter is a brooding young teetotaler who compulsively masturbates to mermaid fantasies. Together they keep the lighthouse operational and one another company through rain and shine (mostly rain) while their behavior quickly begins to grate on each other and madness gradually infiltrates their tormented minds. Okay, Dafoe was already as mad as a mercury-poisoned milliner, but Pattinson soon outpaces him as their initial four-week stint on the barren rock soon becomes a permanent residency following his illicit massacring of a sacred seagull.
Yes, seagulls are sacred to seafarers, because this is the 1800s and anything that can have a superstitious belief tethered to it does have a superstitious belief tethered to it.
Beyond the initial premise of two concupiscent straight dudes inhabiting a lighthouse and slowly losing their marbles, there isn’t much in the way of plot to expound on. Just as The Witch made sparing use of its supernatural elements, so The Lighthouse shuns traditional scares in favour of employing atmosphere and narrative unreliability (i.e., is Robert Pattinson actually seeing a mermaid right now?) to foster tension. The story therefore unfolds at a painstakingly methodical pace, devoting itself mainly to the increasingly insane behavior of its two adversarial lightkeepers, whose dialogue is bizarre enough to classify this as a black comedy. The soundtrack fills much of the void left by the absentee action beats and might be the most foreboding score I’ve encountered since Annihilation – its ominous ambience and choice percussions mingle harmoniously to imbue a palpable sense of unease even when the only threat facing Pattinson is the steely gaze of a one-eyed gull. Absent also are the mythological sea beasts many naïve moviegoers undoubtedly entered the theater anticipating – all the mermaids and Lovecraftian tentacles that were teased in the trailers by A24’s desperate marketing department are merely the stuff of fevered dreams and vivid hallucinations (or are they??). This means that the eventual violence the two men inflict upon one another is the result of their respective mental deterioration coupled with common animosity arising from close quarters cohabitation as opposed to the influence of external forces. Simply put, The Lighthouse is meticulously slow, purely psychological, and completely grounded, which is what makes it so inherently chilling. Despite how outlandish its two lightkeepers are, everything that unfolds is firmly within the bounds of reality and stems from the natural course human nature takes when it’s indefinitely cut off from the rest of the world.
As was the case with The Witch, the most horrifying elements at play in The Lighthouse are isolation and the hopelessness that it so readily breeds. As the steamer that ferried Dafoe and Pattinson to their remote island vanishes into the surrounding fog, its horn blasts echoing mournfully across the choppy sea, we know these men are doomed simply because no one on Earth will be coming for them should anything go wrong. As it turns out, nothing technically needed to ‘go wrong’ – left to their own devices, Dafoe and Pattinson were more than enough to bring one another to total ruin. Back in 2015, I compared The Witch to John Carpenter’s The Thing in that the eponymous monsters in both films are meant to symbolize the true evil menacing the hapless characters – each other. With an unidentifiable threat lurking in the shadows and everyone’s allegiances and identities suddenly thrown into question, the groups in both films swiftly turn on one another, effectively making the monster’s job of eliminating them that much easier. The Lighthouse takes this a step further in that there isn’t really a ‘thing’ at all besides the most dangerous creatures on the planet – bored, paranoid humans. We’ve seen this story enacted countless times dating all the way back to Lord of the Flies (it probably predates William Golding’s groundbreaking novel, but I’m not that well read enough to know any better). Confine any number of us together with our petty resentments and desperate bids for power and we’ll eventually rip each other to pieces, regardless of whether or not there is a thing from another world, a witch, or something even more mysterious to prey on us.
Hell, when my little brother and I were locked in the family playroom, we’d be at each other’s throats in a matter of minutes.
Stylistically, The Lighthouse is enthralling to behold. Shot on black and white film stock and framed in a 3:4 fullscreen aspect ratio, it evokes the spirit of 1950s B-movies without ever coming across as gimmicky or pretentious. I mentioned in my write-up of A Ghost Story that one’s enjoyment of that film would hinge on the appeal of David Lowery’s production choices to the individual viewer, but here the styles employed by Eggers never overpower the senses. The sound design is appropriately haunting and the stark lighting completes the film’s vintage aesthetic, with both guiding the mood and feel of every scene in perfect tandem.
It goes without saying that Dafoe and Pattinson are in top form as the two diametrically opposed lighthouse keepers. Dafoe’s acting prowess is, of course, no surprise, because the man has played everything at this point from the Green Goblin to Jesus of Nazareth. Pattinson has finally shed the last vestiges of his Twilight persona (which he began to do in 2012’s Cosmopolis) and given his finest performance to date. Curiously, his is not the likeable everyman protagonist you might expect to star opposite Dafoe’s mercurial old coot. He is sullen, resentful, and uptight; reticent in demeanor and plagued by a guilty conscience over a terrible misdeed in his past. It matters not that Dafoe toys with him for the duration of the film – he would have authored his own misfortune with or without the old wickie looming over him and docking his pay for the most minor of infractions.
In close, I liked The Lighthouse a great deal, though I personally prefer The Witch. Eggers is truly shaping up to be a masterful director and I personally look forward to seeing what he has to offer next.