2015’s “The Witch” was a strange and mesmerizing little film—an exceedingly slow burn set in Puritan New England, haunted by stern religiosity, madness, and the ever-present specter of the supernatural. With “The Lighthouse,” director Robert Eggers turns his talents to a different facet of the American experience: the world of smoky oil lamps, windswept islands, and ramshackle buildings hanging over the turbulent sea.
As the film opens, young drifter Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) joins old salt Thomas Wick (Willem Dafoe) to maintain an unnamed lighthouse somewhere far from shore. The two men do not take kindly to each other: Wick proves to be a stern taskmaster, chastising Winslow for the smallest infractions and demanding ever-higher standards of obedience. Above all else, Wick demands that Winslow never ascend to the summit of the lighthouse, where the lantern burns day and night. And Wick is prepared to enforce that rule with violence if necessary. (Mistrust, rage, and possible insanity follow.)
From an acting standpoint, this is superb work from both Pattinson and Dafoe (I never knew how much I wanted to see Dafoe as a gruff old sailor—particularly one who tosses around some of the most creative nautical curses I’ve ever heard). The sound design is suitably unsettling, and the film’s 1.19:1 aspect ratio and black-and-white cinematography further evoke the surreal. It’s not exactly the most accessible movie I’ve ever seen—if you thought “The Witch” was slow-paced, “The Lighthouse” is positively languid—but it’s nonetheless effective.
It’s hard to call this genre horror; on a thematic level, both “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are in some sense deconstructions of American history. Both films tap into iconic aspects of the American story, narratives previously immortalized in prior works: if “The Witch” unfolds against the backdrop of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Lighthouse” channels the ethos of Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” In that spirit, “The Witch” was suffused with concepts of purity and sin; “The Lighthouse,” in turn, wrestles with man’s response to the incomprehensible.
But where postmodernity sees deconstruction as as a disclosure of hidden human structures of power and oppression, Eggers’s deconstruction occurs on a deeper level. Rather than simply re-narrating the stories we tell ourselves, Eggers questions whether they were our stories in the first place. His movies are about the otherworldly forces creeping around the edges of experience, the liminal spaces where the human order blurs into the wild and pagan. On this view, it’s the story of civilization that’s actually aberrational; the eerie is the “natural state of things.”
As I’ve written before, this is a very old—one might even say premodern—view of the cosmos, one in which human ingenuity has little purchase. Indeed, “The Lighthouse” squarely sets up this dilemma: Wick is a man of ritual and superstition, and Winslow is a man of procedures and “reason.” Only one of them ends up vindicated.
Like the cramped cottage rooms it depicts, “The Lighthouse” is the sort of thing that some will observe and wonder what kind of person could find it appealing. It’s vague, ambiguous, and full of sturm und drang. And to be sure, this is indeed a movie for a very particular sort of person—one willing to endure long stretches of strange imagery and atmospheric world-building in the hope of an effective payoff. On that score, though, it really does succeed tremendously.