A24 has gained a solid reputation for distributing unique arthouse horror films, from the psychological drama It Comes At Night and Krisha from Trey Edward Shults and Ari Aster’s two features Hereditary and Midsommar to Robert Eggers’s 2015 Sundance smash, The Witch. This weekend brings their release of Eggers’ followup feature, The Lighthouse, which delivers in every facet of its status as an excellent exercise in arthouse genre film, from its haunting, surreal imagery and black-and-white cinematography to stellar performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, and open-ended ideas about masculinity and companionship.
Either madness or an unsettling enchantment is afoot for a pair of lighthouse keepers isolated on an island together in the new arthouse horror film from A24 and Robert Eggers.
In 2015, writer/director Robert Eggers scared, confused, frustrated and provoked questions from audiences with his directorial debut feature, The Witch. It was lauded for its nightmarish tone, unsettling atmosphere, a captivating breakout performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, and its dedication to authenticity in its setting of folk-era New England. However, while many speculated over who the titular witch was, let alone if there was one, others were skeptical about how terrified the film made them feel, even going so far as to declare it too artsy to be horror.
The debate is sure to continue again with Eggers’ newest arthouse horror psychodrama, The Lighthouse, which stays rooted in folklore in a different niche of the world, boasts two captivating lead performances that grow more fascinating in their terror as the film progresses, and new visual, artistic flourishes from Eggers’ directorial style that aid to tell a haunting and strange but never uncompelling story with a myriad of ideas about masculinity and companionship.
The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, two men assigned to keep a lighthouse clean and sturdy on an unknown remote New England island circa-1890s. Right from the get-go, Winslow is quick to grow annoyed with Thomas, between his persistent farting and stories about mythic superstitions (which Winslow is quick to dismiss as ‘tall tales’), in addition to his irrational orders to keep the lighthouse floorboards clean and do all the manual labor, leaving Thomas as the only one to work on the bright, majestic lantern.
Both men work through their differences and get to know each other over what’s supposed to be a four-week stint on the island. . .but when a storm isolates the men for longer than they realize, cabin fever soon sets in for Winslow, leading him to wonder more and more about the lantern of the lighthouse and the secrets inside it, drive himself toward repeated drunken stupors, and witness visions of a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) washed ashore. But while Winslow begins to question what is real and what is his imagination, his superior Thomas wonders what secrets his assistant brought with him on their journey, and whether or not he can be trusted.
In crafting the film from a script co-written by himself and his brother Max Eggers, Robert Eggers directs The Lighthouse in a visual style reminiscent of most silent films; electing to shoot the film in gorgeous black and white cinematography that sets up Thomas and Winslow’s isolation from the rest of the world in wide shots of the lighthouse as they arrive, and traps both men in their solitude through a 4:3 aspect ratio. Their seclusion is furthered by the island’s status as a character in the story through an incendiary sound design that gives the lighthouse a certain monstrousness at every spontaneous roar of its machinery. The silent-era influence even goes so far as to aid in conveying Winslow’s mental deterioration in an intimate yet unnerving scene edited not unlike the Soviet montage movement.
But what projects The Lighthouse into unsettling territory are its performances. Dafoe and Pattinson disappear into the characters of Thomas and Winslow as effortlessly as their characters descend into madness. Stories have surfaced about the incredible lengths to which Pattinson went to replicate Winslow’s downward spiral, and the intensity he brings to the table is there on full display, even in the film’s seemingly most innocent moments: Winslow’s rapid stomps and slurring in a scene where the two lighthouse keepers dance and sing an old folk song only build the feeling of unease, while monologues that pit Winslow losing his temper toward his superior leave spectators wondering how much of his dialogue was in the script, and how much of it is off the top of Pattinson’s head.
Meanwhile, Dafoe brings a grounded approach to the withered and experienced Thomas, who carries his superstitious ideals and destroyed sense of time so naturally, that spectators are left wondering if Thomas is too far gone mentally since before the events of the film. Yet Thomas is passionate about his line of work and beliefs in the fantastical, and it shows through Dafoe’s eloquent delivery of ancient prayers before dinner, legends about seagulls carrying the souls of dead sailors, and old yarns about past lighthouse workers with an authentic nautical dialect, complete with a vocabulary well-researched from the works of Herman Melville and several journals from old seafarers.
All those elements keep The Lighthouse an engrossing and unsettling watch from beginning to end, while the themes of the film manifest themselves in the form of surreal and frightening imagery, from giant tentacle monsters and shrieking seabirds to subliminal moments of our main characters masturbating and even closeups of insects that mirror the disgusting presentations of the dinners Thomas cooks. However, Eggers doesn’t wrap his story up nicely in one concrete idea, and this ambiguity could frustrate those looking for more answers to the questions he asks. It’s also worth noting that like The Witch before it, the sailor jargon can be difficult to discern at times.
But room for interpretation leaves a plethora of possibilities for the central message of The Lighthouse: is it a tale about the monstrous darkness that lurks beneath toxic masculinity? Is it a Lovecraftian-esque parable about the hopelessness of existence without companionship? Or is it a stream of consciousness narrative from the perspective of a man repressing underlying homosexual desires as he goes through cabin fever? Regardless, The Lighthouse is a chilling psychological mind-bender of an arthouse horror film with plenty of intentional humor to balance out the disturbing twists and turns of its narrative.
Audiences will marvel at the visual storytelling of Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography and both lead men’s performances, be frightened of their characters as the progression of their mental breakdowns unfold, and also laugh at the timing of Thomas’s sporadic farts and the abrupt cuts from both men’s violent play-fighting to them telling each other secrets in an intimate moment of trust. Robert Eggers’ sophomore effort may offer up more questions than answers, but that will leave those looking for a challenge in their horror this Halloween season well-rewarded to the point of aiming to solve the mysteries of the film themselves through repeat viewings, and deciphering the script’s seafaring lingo. There’s no spilling the beans on this one: The Lighthouse is a masterful piece of horror artistry, and one that will stay with audiences long after its over.