In her review of the John Boorman WWII picture Hell in the Pacific (1968), Pauline Kael asked, “Haven’t you always longed for a movie full of Toshiro Mifune grunting and Lee Marvin muttering to himself?” The Lighthouse is almost two hours of Willem Dafoe grunting and Robert Pattinson muttering to themselves. Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch (2015) uses the churning grey waters and perpetual rain of an isolated New England location as the backdrop for a story about two men who drive each other mad. If readers have seen publicity photos of the actors posing for their own daguerreotype, they’ll have an idea of the pedigree — the tradition of the Cinema of Quality — that Eggers brings to what is otherwise a rote psych horror flick.
The first half hour of The Lighthouse, detailing the arrival of Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Winslow (Pattinson) and the routine they settle into, is the strongest. Following Wake’s orders, Winslow empties chamber pots, carries kerosene to the top of the tower (only for Wake to remind him that these gruesomely heavy canisters are too flammable to keep up there), and brings wheelbarrows of coal. “Boredom makes men into villains,” Wake, an embodiment of the Protestant work ethic, growls, a sentence that screams “foreshadowing!” Most taxing of Winslow’s responsibilities is enduring his nominal supeiror’s gin-fueled tirades: often incomprehensible passages that want to evoke Melville but edge closer to Tolkien, captured by Eggers in startling closeups of Dafoe’s bearded face and flashing eyes; they recall the Orson Welles of John Huston’s pedantic but worthwhile 1956 adaptation of Moby Dick (he played Father Mapple) and Welles’ own Chimes at Midnight (1966). At first Winslow resists the temptation — is he trying to dry out? But the befoulment of the cisterns reminds him and us that nineteenth century Americans consumed alcohol by the dram because it was safer than drinking water. He yields to other temptations, for example a scrimshaw of a woman buried in the lining of his mattress as masturbatory subject matter.
Given its 1.19:1 aspect ratio, Jarin Blaschke’s dimly illumined interiors, and the absence of a supporting cast, The Lighthouse primes viewers for something awful. It may have silent film ambitions, but it’s not a silent film: besides Wake’s yammering, always the audience hears the cawing of seagulls, one of which has beef with Winslow. First it blocks his way, then it strafes him. Enraged, he bludgeons it against the rocks to the accompaniment of Mark Korven’s obtrusive score. Killing a gull, Wake has warned him, will bring the wrath of heaven; as confirmation the camera dollies up the lighthouse to a vane that ominously changes direction. A storm approaches. Winslow’s fantasies of octopi and fucking mermaids get more lurid. Winslow and Wake’s drinking assumes epic proportions; when they exhaust their stores of gin, they resort to that delicious beverage, sweetened turpentine. The insults accumulate, the best of which is Winslow’s calling Wake a “curdled foreskin.”
Put two alcoholic men in a confined space and the dancing and singing will eventually coax out frustrated sexual impulses. The Lighthouse suggests the inevitability of the descent into barbarism. Wrestling mightily with an accent that may be Bostonian like Jell-O might be food, Pattinson can’t shake the sense that he’s miscast. After a decade of estimable post-Twilight work, he stumbles when the material demands histrionics. Dafoe, with his mackerel chin and paraffin cheeks, fares better; he’s a natural grotesque. But his monologues have the air of a theater exercise, and eventually Eggers’ closeups don’t venerate him so much as expose him. An intention, no doubt: by the time The Lighthouse approaches the sadism of its last quarter hour – leashes, barking, and pickaxes make indelible cameo appearances – it has turned into an early O’Neill play in which hardy seafaring men tell the truth about the other. The last shot, which I shall not spoil, is a parody of Rubens’ rendition of the Prometheus myth. Typical of Eggers’ approach, he holds the shot a few seconds too long so that audiences won’t miss the point. To endure The Lighthouse is akin to getting swatted across the head with a seagull.