When Robert Eggers stormed onto the scene with a flourish back in 2015, using the remote climes of New England to tell a stirring, novel and rejuvenating horror tale in the form of The Witch, it is safe to say he immediately captured the interest of many – myself included. As he slowly crept into hibernation following the release of his captivating debut, his doings were shrouded in mystery, a veil that was finally parted in 2018 when he revealed his next project. The Lighthouse is the end result of that labour, and it does not disappoint in the slightest.
The premise of The Lighthouse is deceptively simple and overwhelmingly effective. In the late 1890s, newly enlisted "wickie" Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) travels to a remote island – once again, somewhere in New England – that plays host to the titular structure, accompanied by experienced keeper Thomas Wake (Dafoe), to begin four weeks of work as an apprentice. What initially seems mundane and routine, however, rapidly transforms into something far more sinister and unexplainable, and both men find themselves grappling with forces beyond their understanding – and with each other.
Eggers turns once more to his native land to produce this tale of horror and mystery, and right out of the gate, you are kept on your toes. The raw atmosphere generated by The Lighthouse is so keenly crafted, so unrelenting in its weight and ferocity that it bears down upon you like a storm and refuses to relinquish its grip until the closing credits, bolstered further by the haunting and blaring score provided by Mark Korven. The setting matches the time period it reflects flawlessly, breathing life stunning and malevolent at every turn, from the crippling isolation of the distant rock playing host to the eponymous structure to the turbulent and untamed seas surrounding it. Despite its minimalist cast – only six characters are seen across the course of the story, and three of them extremely briefly – the island itself is an entity always existing in the background, its ominous foghorn blaring in the distance as though it were an exhalation from the earth, the island being some unknowable living entity that its inhabitants contend with at every turn. This plays into the wider narrative as two mere men find matters taking turns from the everyday to the supernatural, a biting examination of the effects of isolation on the human mind tinged with an all-pervading darkness and otherworldiness that H.P. Lovecraft would be proud of. In this lies, perhaps, the film's one slight misstep, as the events unfolding on screen can appear vague, but Eggers is a man who places faith in the ability of the audience to reach their own conclusions – to decide whether or not the film's events are the result of creeping madness, or if they are influenced by powers beyond mortal comprehension. Above all else, the human action takes precedence, a story of two men battling both remote emptiness and a loss of sanity, and it is here that the film excels.
Technically, too, this film is a marvel and stands as a testament to what Eggers is attempting. If The Witch was him testing the waters, The Lighthouse is him diving into those same waters without a shred of hesitation. The film, shot entirely in monochrome, on 35mm film and in a strikingly unique 1:19:1 aspect ratio, hearkens back to creations of old, transporting viewers to a different place and time and leaving an indelible impression in its wake. Enhancing this further is the outstanding cinematography provided by Jarin Blaschke. Through a deft union of old and new filming techniques and by utilizing the boxier and more claustrophobic aspect ratio to its fullest potential, every close-up is made that much more impactful, every striking image seared into the minds of those who see it, portrayed in vivid detail. More feats astound besides, from using a camera lens a century old, withstanding the rough weather of Cape Forchu to constructing a lighthouse on-site, capped off with a genuine Fresnel lens. Despite this feature coming after The Witch, elements of it had emerged even before that film's production, and the time and care that Eggers and his crew have given this film is clear, oozing from every pore.
The highest praise of all, however, must be given to the performances. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are cut loose, letting their passion and their experience flow onto the silver screen. Despite the breezy running time of little over an hour and a half, their shared artistry creates two of the most memorable characters to emerge from modern cinema – if not, indeed, cinema as a whole. Their chemistry as actors and characters both stands almost unparalleled, an industry veteran letting his years of experience shine through as the rugged, coarse and piratical Wake, paired alongside a youthful gift at once brimming with energy and subtle emotional strength, determined to break his association with films based on shoddy young adult franchises. Winslow and Wake's exchanges are nothing less than utterly scintillating, two talents bringing their strengths to bear whether they're drunkenly carousing in a scene out of a bizarre sitcom, stridently piling insults upon one another, or simply dining together. The magnetic nature of their shares scenes is further enhanced by dialogue and dialects that are consistently period-accurate – a product of Eggers' meticulous research, having perused record books owned by lighthouse keepers of the time, as well as novels such as Moby Dick, to give their speech impeccable authenticity. That both Dafoe and Pattinson were overlooked for the awards season is nothing less than criminal, Dafoe especially, who gives one of the most arresting speeches in recent memory. For these two artists alone, this film is worth each and every minute, as they create two characters that will assuredly remain burned into memory.
The Lighthouse is a cinematic experience like no other, an inventive, daring and spellbinding second outing from a brave and bold new voice in the arena of film. He is not content with simply giving the flagging genre of horror new and vibrant life. He sets out to craft his own incomparable and inimitable magnum opuses, and The Lighthouse succeeds in every respect imaginable. See it at your earliest convenience – there is indeed enchantment in the light.