“Hot Promethean plunder” are three words that emerge from Willem Dafoe’s mouth during one of his many logorrheic sprees over the course of The Lighthouse, a gruesome two-hander directed by horror wunderkind Robert Eggers (The Witch) and co-written by the director and his brother Max. At least I think that’s what Dafoe’s character is saying, given the difficulty of deciphering much of the dense and curiously accented dialogue. At any rate, the phrase serves as an apt summation of the movie he’s in, a maritime nightmare awash in mythological references, Moby Dick paraphrases, and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” samples. (In its late scenes, The Lighthouse also becomes unmetaphorically awash in a variety of bodily substances: backed-up sewage water, excrement, semen, vomit.) This austerely designed but thematically florid psychological thriller aspires to a cosmic grandeur that at times directly invokes the myth of Prometheus, a mortal who stole fire from the gods. He was eventually brought low by his hubris, just as this at first fascinating and never less than bonkers movie is eventually sunk by its own theological overreach.
Every day is Talk Like a Pirate Day for Dafoe’s Thomas Wake, a, shall we say, eccentric lighthouse keeper who’s stuck on a rocky island not much bigger than a football field for a four-week tour of duty with his newly hired assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Tom never says “you” when “ye” would do, and at one point reprimands Ephraim for being the verbal equivalent of a landlubber: The proper response to a command is not “Yes, sir,” he reminds his at first respectful apprentice, but “Aye, sir.” For the first half an hour, hardly a word is exchanged between the grizzled, clay pipe–champing veteran and the taciturn, cigarette-smoking newcomer, a former logger on his first foray into lighthouse duty. But when the words start to arrive in force, timed to the mounting claustrophobia, perversity, and madness of the film’s final half, they are profuse, poetic, profane, and occasionally ridiculous.
The year, to judge from context clues, is sometime in the 1880s or 1890s, though no on-screen title appears to spell out either time or location. The opening setup has a pleasingly austere simplicity: A ship emerges from a veil of gray fog, deposits Winslow, Wake, and their worldly belongings on the starkly featureless rock, and sails away. The rest of the movie will be spent in uncomfortably and at times tediously close proximity to two men living in close quarters in a squat whitewashed lighthouse that consists of a steep spiral staircase, a sparse kitchen and bedroom, and a locked upper level that houses the structure’s huge revolving light, fueled by an industrial-era coal engine. The younger man spends his days laboriously hauling and shoveling fuel to keep that engine burning, while the old salt sleeps days and spends nights manning the beacon for passing ships. Tom guards the upper chamber with a strange ferocity, refusing to let Ephraim enter and sleeping with the key in his bed. “The light is mine,” he warns his puzzled new assistant, later making the metaphor of sexual possession more explicit: “I am well wedded to this here light.”
An anguished eroticism hangs over the entire movie, from the repressed homoerotic energy between the two men to Ephraim’s recurring dreams of a sexually voracious mermaid, inspired by a tiny carved figure he finds hidden in his horsehair mattress. As their isolation and mutual paranoia increase over those four weeks—and possibly far beyond, given that by the final scenes time seems to have lost all meaning—Ephraim and Tom descend into a sadomasochistic folie à deux, a macho power struggle that threatens to destroy both men. Their growing enmity—or is it a form of love?—even seems to call up the deeper and darker power of the ocean itself, as the “thousand thousand slimy things” of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s seafaring poem begin to invade Ephraim’s dreams, then his waking life, and finally the two men’s shared reality.
Filmed in the old-fashioned, nearly square aspect ratio of 1.19:1, in luminous black-and-white 35 mm (the cinematographer is Jarin Blaschke, who also shot The Witch), The Lighthouse could not possibly look more beautiful, even if the slow, deliberate camera moves sometimes spell out a bit too clearly what we’re meant to be seeing and reacting to: Get a load of this! The sound design is appropriately unsettling, a mix of deafening foghorns, an eerie industrial-sounding score by Mark Korven, and the screeches of circling sea gulls. The lighthouse itself, constructed on a remote rock outcropping off Nova Scotia, is a marvelous feat of production design, recalling an engraving from an old picture book. The overall effect on the viewer is, to put it charitably, “immersive”—a blunter descriptor, especially in the stomach-churning second hour, would be “relentlessly unpleasant.” Pattinson and Dafoe go all-in with performances that are both physically and verbally demanding—Dafoe, in particular, manages to deliver multiple barrages of oneiric, image-crammed dialogue with remarkable naturalness, investing his insult-rich rants not only with menace and pathos but with flights of wild humor.
The Lighthouse is at its strongest when it resembles the dark comedy of a Beckett play, complete with earthy scatological humor. (One of the longest-running conflicts between Tom and Ephraim is the latter’s objection to the former’s uncontrolled flatulence.) But as the mythological references pile up and the forbidden light atop the tower accrues ever more (and ever vaguer) symbolic meaning, the film sometimes seems funny in a different way, not because of but in spite of the filmmakers’ intentions. By the time the maddened lighthouse keepers finally got to their final, bloody confrontation, my admiration for the director’s mastery of craft had given way to impatience with his reliance on atmosphere, however beautifully evoked, to take the place of story. “Boredom makes men to villains,” Tom warns Ephraim early in their time together. Its effect on movie audiences is less spiritually corrupting, but in at least one way, I found myself identifying with the stranded seafarers: I desperately wanted to get out.