Robert Eggers’ The Witch was one of the best horror film debuts in recent memory, a beautifully orchestrated period chiller that was always going to be a tough act to follow. Thankfully, The Lighthouse proves it was no fluke. It’s a two-hander set on a remote New England island in the late 19th century. There, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson’s fantastically-named lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake and Efraim Winslow encounter strange goings-on. This isn’t helped by their principle coping method: booze.
Much like The Witch, Eggers uses atmosphere to create a palpable sense of paranoia and impending terror. Through the near-square 4:3 framing, Jarin Blaschke’s moody monochrome cinematography and an unsettlingly intrusive score, his command is so total that he even manages to make a confrontation between Robert Pattinson and seagull feel like a dread-soaked death match for the ages.
Dafoe is fantastic as the cantankerous, whiskey-guzzling keeper who may know more than he lets on (and who’s a dead ringer for the pipe-chomping sea captain in The Simpsons). As for Pattinson, this could very well be his best performance to date. Having worked with the likes of David Cronenberg, the Safdie brothers and Claire Denis since his Twilight days, the actor has steadily proven he’s worthy of these directorial partnerships. This is something else though, and it’ll be a crime if his work here is overlooked in the upcoming awards season.
As good as the performances are, it’s worth warning that The Lighthouse won’t be for everyone. It’s a hypnotic maritime fever dream that often feels like an expressionist threesome featuring Bella Tarr, F.W. Murnau and HP Lovecraft, with a smattering of surreal humour added for good measure. As it descends into phantasmagoria, the confusion levels rise and this audacious arthouse horror may lose some viewers, if the sea shanty dialogue hasn’t already proven too alienating by the third act. Many will leave wondering what it was all about. Potential answers range from a mythology-riffing takedown of the masculine ego, to gothic psychodrama about the ills of too much gut-rot. But for those willing to remain on board, and happy to explore its dreamlike narrative logic, it’ll shiver your timbers.
The Lighthouse | Directed by Robert Eggers (US, 2019), with Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson. Starts Nov 28.
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