Robert Eggers remains a guiding light for the lost ship of modern horror.
While global audiences have had access to The Lighthouse for months now, the wait for British cinephiles has been, fittingly, maddening. The promise of a Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson two-man show, with rising directorial star Robert Eggers at the helm, drenched in themes of insanity, isolation, and Lovecraftian cosmic horror has had fans frothing at the mouth in anticipation.
And with good reason. Eggers’ feature film debut, 2015’s The VVitch, was a fantastic piece of horror cinema which demonstrated his abilities in a way few first films can claim. A horrific portrayal of 17th century puritanical paranoia coming up against an unknowable evil far from the safe grasp of humanity, fans of The VVitch will, on paper, see a lot of similarities between it and its successor. A rise of infighting and suspicion within a group of people as the characters and audience alike begin to accuse and question each other, against the backdrop of a haunting, historical New England setting? It’s not hard to draw comparisons.
But make no mistake, The Lighthouse eclipses The VVitch in virtually every sense.
The plot is deceptively simple: a lighthouse keeper (Dafoe) and his assistant (Pattinson) are stationed on a remote and utterly miserable New England island in the 19th century. As the weeks pass in cramped isolation, and the impossibly tempting lure of the light weighs on them, the men descend into terrifying, and occasionally homoerotic, alcohol-fuelled insanity. The film is captured in black-and-white on a 19:16 ratio, keeping the audience as claustrophobic as the characters.
Dafoe and Pattinson are at their absolute best in this film, with the former possibly delivering his finest work to date. Each re-watch reveals a new layer of intricacy from both men – and believe me, this film demands at least a second viewing, trying to appreciate every nook after one sitting is nigh on impossible. The cast benefit, of course, from a masterful script penned by Robert Eggers and his brother Max. Dafoe’s dialogue especially revels in its sailing clichés, to the point of self-awareness, and both leads have the opportunity to shine with phenomenal monologues. Conversations between the two flow and, despite the almost cartoonish nature of Dafoe’s character, feel remarkably human given the eldritch circumstances.
While comparisons can be made between both of Eggers’ films, their tones occupy far ends of the horror movie spectrum. The VVitch was, in a word, harrowing, and while The Lighthouse does not shy away from some truly horrific imagery and plot points, it isn’t without the occasional moment of light comic relief. These moments, while genuinely funny, also do not detract from the film’s lurking, unsettling atmosphere - if anything, they solidify it. It is a movie seeped in ambiguity after all. The Lighthouse drags the viewer from tone to tone with almost reckless abandon, but it never feels rushed or unnecessary – every chaotic moment is a deliberate part of Eggers’ grand vision. The looming atmosphere and constant sense of unease is possibly the film’s strongest attribute.
Visually, the movie is a masterpiece. The cinematography Oscar nod aside, Eggers’ flipping between expansive shots of the island enveloped in storm to the claustrophobic interior shots hammers home the utter confinement of the keepers. At its core, The Lighthouse is a story about two men trapped on a rainy island, but its sublime allusions to things far more malevolent keeps the audience hooked until the harrowing end.