Robert Eggers returns with his sophomore offering after delivering one of the best horror films of the decade, 2016’s “The Witch.” Set in the 1890s just off the coast of Maine, the black and white film stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as a couple of lightkeepers, one a crusty veteran the other a restrained greenhorn, who become antagonists as isolation creeps in. Rather quickly the audience descends into psychological horror as Eggers begins an aural assault on the senses complete with stunning visuals. “The Lighthouse” doesn’t reach the same plateau as the director’s debut but the performances by Dafoe and Pattinson are undeniable.
With lines like, “Damn ye! Then let two strike ye dead, Winslow! Hark!” the 17th century dialogue is delivered with a rhythm that conjures Shakespeare as Willem Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, the keeper of the light who can’t seem to hold on to an apprentice, apparently they all go mad. Robert Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, a novice journeyman with a mysterious past who has just signed on for a four-week tenure opposite Wake on an isolated outpost.
Shot at Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, the film opens on a boat as Thomas and Ephraim head toward the magnificent lighthouse specifically constructed for the film (Eggers doesn’t mess around when it comes to atmospherics). There is no dialogue for several minutes just the sounds of crashing waves, seagulls, and the incessant cries of the baritone foghorn. It’s an ominous start to a strange journey seeped in tension which begins at the outset.
As the two men settle in, the cantankerous booze-guzzling Thomas makes it clear to the by-the-book Ephraim that he’s not allowed in the Lantern Room that houses the high-intensity beam that’s used to warn ships of the hazardous waves and rocks. The lightkeeper manual states that both men share the responsibility of keeping the beam maintained but Thomas reinforces his position as the only one allowed at the top of the lighthouse which remains under lock and key.
As Ephraim is forced to do all the grunt work, resentment builds between the two men who shared cramped quarters permeated by Thomas’ flatulence. The production design by Craig Lathrop and Eggers's use of the boxy 1.19:1 aspect ratio establishes a claustrophobic atmosphere. Combined with the lack of color, at times “The Lighthouse” feels like a film culled from the silent picture era.
Supernatural elements and surreal images are expected from Eggers who doesn’t disappoint. One-eyed seagulls, mermaids, and Defoe resembling a mythological deity are all part of this unconventional journey. By the time we come to the end of this 110-minute journey, like the film’s protagonists, the audience feels like it has ascended from some sort of cinema hell, but with Dafoe and Pattinson as our navigators, it’s a trek worth taking.
(3 ½ stars)