Back in 2015, writer and director Robert Eggers made a blistering first impression with New England horror The Witch. Having now seen his masterful follow-up, The Lighthouse, it's clear that Eggers' debut was far from a one-off. An oppressively nightmarish two-hander starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as a pair of lighthouse keepers who go mad off the mainland after a devastating storm strands them on their temporary island home. This film does for lighthouses what The Shining did for 5-star hotels.
Shot in exquisite, full-frame monochrome – an antiquated aspect ratio that adds to both the squirming claustrophobia and period aesthetics – with a custom orthochromatic filter bringing every pore, blemish and twitch of insanity on the faces of Pattinson and Dafoe to the fore, it’s a paradoxically beautiful film for one filled with such ugliness. On The Witch Eggers immersed himself in contemporary scribblings and dialect tapes to pen the film’s period-authentic dialogue, and the same is true of The Lighthouse, which has a script co-written by Eggers and his brother Max (who initially came up with the premise: a “ghost story in a lighthouse”). The pair have given Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow the period perfect verbiage of a Down East Maine farmer, and Dafoe’s Tom Wake a maritime poetry delivered in a voice that Winsolw, at one point, describes as sounding like “a goddam parody” of a Captain Ahab voice. Only Dafoe could, effectively, play a pirate in a film this serious and get away with it.
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The research has paid off; the dialogue here is nothing short of magnificent. Watching is akin to hearing Shakespeare for the first time – half the dialogue simply washes over you as you pick up fragments of meaning from context. But Eggers, Pattinson and Dafoe emphatically make their point where it matters, including two breath-snatchingly brilliant monologues that feature some of the most creative cursing (in both senses of the word) for many a year. The wordplay needs to be on point, for a great deal of The Lighthouse is simply verbal spats and drunken revelries between Winslow and Wake, their relationship blowing hot and cold depending almost exclusively on how sober they are. And it goes without saying that Dafoe and Pattinson are superb, running the gamut over the film’s two hours. Anyone perplexed by the idea of former Twilight star Pattinson potentially playing the Dark Knight need look no further for confirmation he could pull it off with ease.
Dafoe’s Wake is the grizzled veteran of the lighthouse business, Pattinson’s Ephraim his latest in what may be a long line of assistants. Wake refuses to treat Winslow as his by-the-book equal, however, forbidding Winslow from going anywhere near the light at the pinnacle of the island’s looming tower. We see glimpses of Wake illicitly basking in the heavenly glow, as though he’s absorbing some celestial energy from it. The draw of the forbidden fruit gnaws at Winslow each day as he’s forced to do menial tasks – polishing the brass, shovelling coal into the furnace and attending to the sulphurous cistern – day in, day out. Wake’s last partner, we’re told, went mad raving about “sirens and merfolk”. It isn’t long before Winslow starts having his own mystical visions (or are they?) of screeching mermaids washed ashore and slithering kraken tentacles.
The Lighthouse is a must-watch horror
Eggers’ gliding camerawork is full of ominous portent in the first half, but as the storm intensifies, he ratchets up the film’s ferocity like Darren Aronofsky at the height of his powers. As a portrait of the unimaginable experience of total isolation from civilisation in the most harsh of environments it’s hard to imagine it being done much better. Eggers hasn’t lost his knack for an artfully composed tableau that burns into your brain with nightmarish iconography, either, while the overpowering sound design (including a relentless foghorn that threatens to send viewers mad, let alone the characters) and Mark Korven’s remarkable score is the proverbial cherry.
It should also be noted that the script, for all its serious-minded menace, is also surprisingly funny. A running gag about Wake constantly passing wind never fails to raise a smile despite being a literal fart joke, and many of the more dramatically heightened scenes are punctuated by humorous ripostes. Winslow’s declaration that, after eating nothing but Wake’s lobster for weeks, if he had a steak right now he’d “fuck it” is the funniest moment of the festival so far. While an anthropomorphised seagull, who Winslow has a full on staring contest with at one point, would surely win the Palme c’Aw, if it existed.
Narratively, there are few surprising deviations – it’s a simple story superlatively told – and by keeping things a little too ambiguous you’ll leave with more questions that you would perhaps like. But otherwise this is peerless filmmaking from a director who’s emerging as one of contemporary horror’s true greats. In a post-film Q&A Eggers rather modestly claimed that he had much to learn from his craft. On the basis of his first two features, he’s already a master.
For more Cannes 2019 coverage read our review of Pedro Almodóvar's Pain And Glory.