At the beginning of Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives on a remote island with his superior, Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe), to tend to the titular beacon. Their path, along steep craggy cliffs in howling winds, was difficult, but there will be no relief inside either. As Winslow bumps his head on the low ceiling of their shared upstairs quarters, Wake is already urinating into a chamber pot, farting and barking orders about Winslow’s duties.
Life on the island is hard. Winslow’s tasks are back-breaking and seemingly never-ending, everything but the more rewarding nursing the light itself – a role the alcoholic Wake has decided will be his alone. As Winslow’s work takes on the quality of Greek mythological punishment, the keeping of the light increasingly becomes a source of privilege, power, and knowledge.
Light is everywhere in this film, even in the darkness. Pattinson is beautifully backlit with silver moonlight and the nooks and crannies of Dafoe’s features are accentuated like the island’s angular rocks. The two actors give magnetic performances, captured with intensity by director of photography, Jarin Blaschke, who also shot Eggers’ previous film, period horror-thriller The Witch (2015).
Indeed, the elemental battle of The Lighthouse are not with the crashing waves and fierce winds of the exterior environment, but inner conflicts too, of surging tension, envy, and control. The film is an unrelenting psycho-sexual battle of wills, stylistically evoking a huge variety of influences, from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950) to the erotic artwork of Katsushik Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. The film revels in the masculine figure, mentioning women only as erotic fantasies or memories of archetypal figures: nuns, mermaids, and wives.
Certainties are few in The Lighthouse, and a lesser work might suffer from the ebb and flow of power-play and psychological angst. The film poses about as many questions as it manages to answer, and at times threatens to cut its audience adrift, but its strength lies in the unfolding intrigue. The film is a masterstroke of atmosphere, with bad luck floating in the air like the gulls on the wind. Rose Baker
The Lighthouse is out on wide release.