One of my all-time favorite films is F.W. Murnau’s silent classic, Sunrise, a drop dead gorgeous example of German expressionism in which its haunting imagery and Postman Always Rings Twice storyline felt way ahead of its time. Filmmakers today could learn a lot from its ability to tell a compelling story with very little dialogue. Some of our most visceral current filmmakers, such as David Lynch and Claire Denis owe a huge debt to this pioneering filmmaker. Add Robert Eggers to that list, whose debut film, The Witch, demonstrated his mastery of tone and dread, and now with his follow-up, The Lighthouse, he adds brutality, intensity, subtext, and surrealism to his singular voice. It’s definitely not a film for everyone, but if you like to feel a film down to its pores, then welcome to his little slice of Hell.
In late 1890s New England, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) serves as Thomas Wake’s (Willem Dafoe) assistant for a grueling four week stint minding a remote lighthouse. Wake’s a gruff, pipe-smoking, constantly farting, foul-mouthed old salt, while Winslow, who relocated from the Pacific Northwest, has a quiet air of mystery about him. Eggers, who co-wrote the script with his brother Max, shoots in an inky black and white and opts for a square aspect ratio, the better to sell its silent film qualities. We’ve convincingly stumbled into the past, where dank quarters barely protect you from the elements and cabin fever seems like a mere introduction.
From the start, Eggers immerses us into their world. An early shot of Wake and Winslow framing a shot of the lighthouse as their boat sails ashore has the feel and vibe of a hand-cranked silent film. A minute later, the pair stare into the camera with looks so deadening, they seem to tell us they know of the rough ride ahead. Wake treats Wislow like a dog. While Wake insists on working in the lighthouse at night, he orders Winslow to do all the daytime drudge work, such as cleaning the latrine, painting the walls, and constantly scrubbing like a Cinderella who will never see a glass slipper. Winslow can also never go into the top of the lighthouse.
Of course, a command like that will not be heeded or we’d have no film. Getting to that point, Eggers loads the screen with an endless display of dread. The intrusive sound mix combines constant foghorns with Mark Korven’s bold, distinctive score. It rattles you, along with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s fantastic framing and use of negative space. We experience the deprivation through Winslow’s eyes, his gaze fixated on Wake while he sleeps. Occasionally, Winslow will relieve his tension while holding a mermaid figurine, but his sexual feelings seem confused. Violent impulses eventually supplant sexual ones. Hallucinations abound. Men lose themselves in the moment. It’s impossible to watch this film without thinking of it as a treatise on homosexual panic. Waiting For Gaydot, as it were.
Since Eggars has “young auteur” written all over him, much like Ari Aster has with his first two films, we already have some Eggers tropes at play. In addition to the black and white, the unsettling sound mix, and the unexplainable occurrences, he also brings us another memorable animal performance. Whereas The Witch gave us Black Phillip, the goat, his new film has an intensely squawking seagull who finds all sorts of ways to annoy Winslow. You won’t forget the gull’s storyline anytime soon.
Same goes for the lead performances. Dafoe, who spouts a constant stream of crazed monologues, kept me from wanting this to be dialogue-free. It’s a non-stop, ferocious role, and Dafoe takes a big bite out of it. He reminded me of R. Lee. Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, with his bold, fearless approach to a character most would want to clobber. Pattinson proves once more that post-Twilight, he’s one of the greats. As an actor, he has the most expressive eyes and knows how to simultaneously evoke danger and lust. As things go completely bonkers in this film, you willingly take the ride just to see how Pattinson will react to the increasingly crazy and dire circumstances.
Not everybody goes to the movies to feel dirty and disgusted. The Lighthouse hardly offers escapist fare. It’s a romantic comedy as filtered through a literal cesspool, and Eggers joins the few who I’ll follow down into the sewer if it means experiencing a film like this, which engages all of your senses.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. The Lighthouse gets a 50 out of 50. Its male-on-male gaze, its almost kiss, its sexually awakening protagonist, its panic, feels like a 19th century version of Deathtrap!
By Glenn Gaylord
The Lighthouse is currently playing in U.S. theaters.