Writers: Robert Eggers and Max Eggers
Director: Robert Eggers
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
It’s certain that The Lighthouse will have its fans. Robert Eggers, who brought us The Witch, now directs this claustrophobic tale of two men, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, working in a lighthouse off the wild coast of New England. Filmed in black and white, every shot looks beautiful and sharp, but the story suffers under this magnetic aesthetic.
Pattinson is unrecognisable here playing Winslow a former lumberjack (‘I’ve had enough of trees’) who wants to work as a lighthouse-keeper. He’s sent to assist Tom (Dafoe), who puts him to work immediately. Winslow wants to work the lantern, but this is Tom’s job and Tom’s alone, and he locks the trapdoor when he’s alone with the light during the night-time. Tom is a strict master, only lightening up after a drink even though it’s against regulations to drink on duty, and their relationship is initially stormy.
Surly and sinewy, Pattinson is perfect as the newcomer, and surely this film now marks him as a series art-house actor, coming so soon after his performance in Claire Denis’ sci-fi oddity, High Life. His Twilight years are now firmly behind him. He’s a match for Dafoe’s Tom, who’s all whiskers and rage, the shadows catching Dafoe’s face like an early photograph. The older actor seems to have blown off the coast of Ireland, full of poetry and superstition. It’s a mesmerising experience despite the fact that some of his words are swallowed up by his accent, and the wind that roars persistently.
Eggers has an idiosyncratic vision, and within it are hints of German expressionism, as the actors foreground the landscape, which signifies the wildness of the two men’s relationship. There are echoes of other films in The Lighthouse; the isolation and sexual tension of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, also starring Dafoe, and the cat-and-mouse game of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But ultimately, The Lighthouse produces its own eerie discomfort, but never delivers the horrors promised in the first scenes.
It’s certain that The Lighthouse will have its critics, too. One of the main disappointments is that the horror comes too early; not the horror of the supernatural but the horror of spending time with one person in a confined place with seemingly unlimited supplies of alcohol. The film works best in its first 20 minutes or so as we see Winslow going about his chores around the lodge such as liming the drinking water, or, in a heart-stopping scene, painting the tower of the lighthouse. With only a glimmer of the terrors to come, The Lighthouse works best when it broods.
The dreams of mermaids disappear in the stupor of alcohol, and by the end the rows and the drinking bouts become a little repetitive and the viewer feels just as trapped as Winslow and Tom. Eventually the film has nowhere to go but up, and then we see what’s at the top of the lighthouse, the lantern that Tom guards so jealously.
This vision of loneliness and friendship, of isolation and sexual repression, may not quite be the future classic proclaimed by some critics, but it definitely showcases the extraordinary acting talents of its two leads, especially Pattinson.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October