“Nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus.”
That’s how writer-director Robert Eggers (The Witch) describes his second feature, a curious tale of isolation and ambiguously supernatural mystery. It may sound like a joke, but it is a worryingly accurate description of the vaguely Lovecraftian, explicitly Freudian piece of psychosexual weirdness that is The Lighthouse.
Set off the coast of New England in the closing years of the nineteenth century, The Lighthouse follows young ‘wickie’ Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) as he begins a stint as helper to veteran lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Constantly in conflict and devoid of any other human company, the two men gradually begin to lose grip of their sanity… but is there something even more sinister going on? From there, it just gets weirder.
Part surreal horror, part absurdist comedy, the film is never less than mind-twistingly bizarre – often in an unsettlingly sexual way. In a genre full to bursting with tales of monstrous female sexuality, perhaps Eggers is making a feminist point by creating a piece of horror centred around the fearful potential of heterosexual male sexuality – that or he spends far too much time watching Japanese tentacle porn. To give the man his due, once you’ve got ‘live-action Legend of the Overfiend’ out of your head, the sporadic yet ominous images of writhing tentacles and sinister mermaids do give the film a mythic feel, adding a tinge of cosmic horror to what is largely a small-scale tale of cabin fever. Whether these images represent the reality of the men’s experiences or have a solely symbolic meaning is left up for the audience to decide; it is never clear what is real and what is not, whether what we are seeing depicts the characters’ experiences, hallucinations or fantasies. Eggers’ story resides in the strange space between dreams and waking, where the real and the unreal are uncomfortably difficult to differentiate. Try as we might to separate the two, it is a losing game, as this uneasy state of confusion is exactly where the director wants us.
This purposeful disorientation is mirrored in the characters themselves: we never truly know them any more than they know each other, which isn’t a whole lot. Are Wake and Winslow who they say they are? It seems there are mysteries under their mysteries, hints of darkness in both their pasts that will only be part revealed before the credits roll. As the only two characters in the whole piece (excluding the odd brief non-speaking role), Pattinson and Dafoe have to carry the entire film between them, and they make it look effortless, always bringing the level of intensity needed to make such bonkers material work.
While the strangeness of the plot and the ambiguous conclusion of its central mysteries may alienate some viewers, Eggers’ thoughtful direction will doubtless prove less divisive. Shooting in black and white and with an almost square 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the director makes the unusual choice of shooting a period film in a way that, to a certain degree, replicates the look and feel of film shot around that time. It works. Not only does the distinctive visual style pull the audience into the period in which the tale is set, but it also evokes classic horror stories from that era, creating both a foreboding atmosphere and an association that works to further throw off the viewer when the plot unexpectedly diverges from the conventional trappings of nineteenth-century horror.
Beautifully shot and boasting two wonderful performances at its core, The Lighthouse is a film as artful as it is strange, as intriguing as it is elusive. While its lack of answers will frustrate some, it is a film that nevertheless demands attention, and one that in all likelihood will leave audiences puzzled not just about the particulars of the plot, but also as to what their own feelings are towards this curious, baffling, and utterly unique piece of work.
The Lighthouse opens in UK cinemas on 31st January 2020.