The Lighthouse

Robert Egger's unorthodox psychological horror drama The Lighthouse is built on a relatively straightforward premise, yet its contents are much trickier to summarize beyond the initial plot. Shot in stark black-and-white 35 mm film and employing an unusual 1.19:1 aspect ratio, it almost feels at times like a maritime companion piece to Egger's previous foray into madness with 2015's folk horror effort The Witch, but The Lighthouse is very much its own beast as well. Keeping the action confined to one setting, a late-nineteenth century lighthouse on a secluded island in an unspecified part of the world, the film details the slow unraveling of Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) as he serves as the caretaker (or "wickie") of the lighthouse alongside a grizzled veteran sailor in Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). For Winslow the job is merely a means to a paycheck, but Wake is truly married to the sea as the saying goes. The hard-drinking old-timer is prone to spouting off superstitions along with old songs of the sea, and even takes to standing stark naked at the top of the lighthouse late at night. Winslow does his best to cope with the isolation and elements of the job, as well as Wake's often irascible and domineering behavior, but soon he nonetheless begins to have strange dreams, perhaps portentous omens of things to come. A one-eyed seagull proves a recurring annoyance, while a figurine of a mermaid he found stuffed in his mattress may well be a totem of deeper and darker visions that simmer to the surface of his consciousness.

Was The Lighthouse built on doomed and cursed ground? Are the old man Wake's superstitious ramblings rooted in some truth? Or is Winslow just having some serious bouts of cabin fever? Egger's screenplay keeps things ambiguous, all Winslow can do is take to the bottle in drinking his feelings away while trying his best to beat off his demons, both figuratively and literally. (Yes, that's a masturbation joke, given the multiple scenes Winslow engages in the act. Sorry, couldn't resist. But while we're talking in crass terms, the film also features just about every bodily waste or fluid imaginable, including urine, feces, blood, vomit, spit, snot, and flatulence for good measure. Only semen is surprisingly absent given the aforementioned scenes, but Pattinson truly deserves credit for some fearless work here.) In all seriousness, his performance is absolutely outstanding. Anyone who thinks he's an actor who has merely coasted on his good looks while benefitting from the popularity of the Twilight films has clearly not been paying attention to his body of work. He's one of our best young actors, and his turn in The Lighthouse is a career peak. He also meshes extraordinarily well with the great Willem Dafoe, as the lighthouse keepers bicker, argue, get drunk, sing, laugh, fight, and pretty much slowly go insane together. Their tumultuous and volatile relationship is at the film's core, and Egger's script does a great job of keeping viewers in suspense regarding how their strained partnership will ultimately end. One could imagine Egger's elevator pitch for The Lighthouse being something along the lines of Eraserhead meets The Shining in a twisted take on the buddy film, but it's really a sad, strange descent into insanity that defies genre classification. As a filmmaker Egger's follows up his top-notch work in The Witch to even greater effect, capturing grotesque and unsettling images with the help of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke in a way that really plunges you in the psyche of Winslow as he seems to lose his grip on reality, all the while details of his own dark and troubled past begin to surface. The haunting original score by Mark Koven also creates an unsettling atmosphere that the film sustains throughout its 110 minute runtime, while the ominous sound design greatly contributes to the hypnotic and hallucinatory tone of the picture as well.

The Lighthouse is definitely a weird bit of arthouse horror that can be expected to alienate many viewers, but the film certainly succeeds on its own terms as an odd and uncomfortable story of confronting the heart of darkness, and ultimately relenting to it.