The foghorn might be the litmus test.
Throughout The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch, a low, persistent horn moans in the background—not so much a warning to the boats that might be passing by the rocky shore, but more of a pronouncement of doom on the two weather-beaten men charged with keeping the lamp. If you find the foghorn to be a maddening, showy piece of sound design in the movie’s first 10 minutes, The Lighthouse is going to be a long haul. But if it strikes you as an ingenious, atmospheric touch—one of the many ways sound and image are employed to make you feel as if seawater is seeping into your own skin—then The Lighthouse will be a cinematic sailor’s yarn you won’t soon forget.
The two lightkeepers—“wickies,” they’re called—are grizzled, bearded veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and fresh-faced novice Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Thomas is sure to put Ephraim in his place on the first day of their four-week stint. He claims a preferred bunk, assigns Ephraim the more distasteful chores, and hoards as his own the most prestigious responsibility: maintaining the lamp itself each night. One dark evening, peering at Thomas up in the tower, Ephraim catches a quick glimpse of Thomas’ naked body dramatically silhouetted against the cosmic beam. What is going on up there?
The Lighthouse doesn’t intend on answering that question, even if the movie doles out a series of increasingly outlandish possibilities. It really doesn’t spoil much to say that Greek mythology—particularly characters such as Poseidon, Proteus, and Prometheus—are repeatedly referenced in striking tableaus. Adding to the allusions, early on Ephraim finds a sculpted figurine of a mermaid hidden in the mattress by his predecessor. Later on, seagulls—including one whose eyes have been pecked out—seem particularly attuned to Ephraim’s movements (a nod to Black Phillip, the demonic goat in The Witch). Adding to the mystery, Thomas’ bossiness begins to take on malevolent undertones the longer their stint drags on. Or is that just the isolation and loneliness curdling into paranoia on Ephraim’s part? (The Shining is another one of the movie’s likely touchstones.)
Figuring everything out isn’t necessary to enjoying The Lighthouse; it’s staggering simply as an audiovisual feast. The aforementioned sound design is a claustrophobic cacophony, comprised of that wailing foghorn, seagulls’ cries, Thomas’ farts, and always—always—the relentless waves crashing mercilessly on the shore. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shot the film in black and white, employing a boxy, 1.19:1 aspect ratio reminiscent of silent cinema (my mind kept going to the gloomy, watery moors of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise). The first shot recalls the indistinct woods of The Witch, only here we look out over the bow of a boat across a foggy waterway, toward the lighthouse that slowly begins to emerge. Thomas and Ephraim’s lonely dinners take place amidst the feeble glow of a single table lamp, the only thing keeping despair at bay. And when we look into the square opening of a dirty cistern, we’re boxed in twice—by the watery hole and the actual frame of the screen. Some might find the aspect ratio gimmicky, a way to easily evoke an earlier era, but I delighted in the ways the technique trapped these men in this time and place.
Figuring everything out isn’t necessary to enjoying The Lighthouse; it’s staggering simply as an audiovisual feast.
Equally enthralling are the performances. Pattinson impressively internalizes Ephraim’s increasing distress, even as those lowered lids suggest that a breaking point will soon arrive. It’s Dafoe, however, who steals the show. His craggy face and dripping beard seem to have been carved from the rocks outside, where seaweed clings to the surface like slippery curls. Thomas continually keeps us on edge, simpering like an old, drunken sea dog one moment, thundering like a Greek god the next. Angered by Ephraim at one point, he launches into a lengthy soliloquy/curse that comes roaring from his mouth like a tidal wave. As in The Witch, Eggers drew many of the dialogue details from period sources (though you may still find it hard not to giggle when Dafoe bellows, “Damn ye! Let Neptune strike ye dead, Winslow!”)
The Lighthouse winds itself up into such a froth—and at a pace that isn’t quite as controlled as The Witch—that it might be tempting to laugh at and dismiss it. But the film rewards those willing to buy in. In fact, the more time I spent with it, the more sense it made, particularly if you read it a certain way. (Spoilers ahead.)
Could it be, I wonder, that Thomas and Ephraim are the same man, marooned on these shores, driven to madness by the loneliness, caught between his past and present, and mired in an eternal debate between older (wiser?) and younger self? Consider that both are accused of murder in the film. Ephraim also reveals at one point that his real name is Thomas. Plus, there are the continual ways they mirror each other: near the end, Ephraim returns Thomas’ curse by delivering a vitriolic upbraiding of his own; those tableaus are often staged when the power between them shifts (I think of Ephraim standing over a cowering Thomas at that dinner table).
The Lighthouse can certainly be read as an account of two men at odds in an isolated post, set against the backdrop of the ancient lore of the sea. But perhaps it uses that lore to illustrate the crumbling mental state of a single man; perhaps we haven’t been watching four weeks pass in the life of Thomas Wake, but four decades.