Just gazing at The Lighthouse feels eerie and wrong. A grainy black and white picture is director Robert Egger’s window into an old world that feels very, very off in its story of two lighthouse keepers driven made by their isolation. And something is indeed, very, very off. Beware all ye who enter The Lighthouse. Look on and despair.
In theaters October 18, The Lighthouse is the sophomore film from Eggers, whose first feature The Witch was the cult hit of 2016. Now he’s back with The Lighthouse, an engrossing, minimalistic, Lovecraftian spiral into madness that also has mermaid sex, killer seagulls, and Willem Dafoe’s farts. The Lighthouse is not the scariest movie this year, but it is one of the most disturbing, captivating, and unforgettable. It’s pulp fiction horror so grimy, I half expect the Blu-ray disc to drip salt water.
Set in a remote New England lighthouse in 1890, Robert Pattinson and Dafoe play two keepers, or “wickies,” named Thomas (at least, that’s what we’re told at first). When a storm leaves them stranded, the two men lose both track of time and their grip on reality, allowing a dark, ghostly presence that lives on the shore to swallow them whole.
The Witch was, and still is, stunning gothic American horror that demonstrated Eggers’ skill in conjuring chilling atmospherics. The Lighthouse is Eggers trying to outdo himself with even more minimalist staging and direction. Two actors, one location — The Lighthouse is practically live theater, and it’s mostly effective.
Eggers’ colorless cinematography and an oblique supernatural mystery imbues The Lighthouse with forbidden allure, like an eldritch smut film salvaged from the bottom of a sunken ship. But the movie’s strongest spell isn’t the beast that hypnotizes the men. It’s Pattinson and Dafoe themselves, two master actors who make this film their own playground of madness.
The two actors’ roles whiff of meta-text. One of the wickies/actors is a grizzled veteran who sees breaking the rules as part of the job, the other is a rookie who wants nothing more than to disappear within the lines.
Pattinson’s far from a rookie. His days as a Hollywood heartthrob are more than a decade behind him, affording him distance to truly vanish beneath a thick sailor mustache and a lumberman’s gruff. As the actor approaches his mid-30s and the role of a lifetime in Batman, Pattinson’s finally fulfilling his destiny as the “next” Brando/Dean/Newman/Redford. If 2017’s Good Time escaped your radar, The Lighthouse is here to convince you that he’s worthy of the cowl. Mermaid sex and all.
The Lighthouse is Pattinson’s to own, but Dafoe is no less enthralling. A bearded goblin with the most New England-Welsh hybrid twang you’ve ever heard — “What’s a timbermahn want with bee-ng a wickee?” — Dafoe alone embodies the haunting tone of Eggers’ film. He’s weird and kooky and creepy all at once, leaving you in the dark as to what part of his personality you’re getting at any moment. When the power dynamics of the Thomases switches in favor of Pattinson’s, it’s not certain that Dafoe isn’t still in control.
Ultimately, the attraction of two A-plus actors doing A-plus work is second to Eggers’ weird fiction ambitions. The Lighthouse is a living Lovecraft homage that keeps all the grit and mystery but scrubs away any of the famed author’s racism and sexism. There’s only the best parts of weird horror, complete with a reluctant perversion towards tentacles, and The Lighthouse is better for it.
At its best, The Lighthouse is an enchanting horror movie that gleefully toys with its audience as to the nature of the film’s evil forces. At its worst, it’s two great actors playing dress up and a skilled director goofing around with old cameras. Neither seem like a total nightmare.
The Lighthouse is in theaters October 18.