Cannes 2019 review: The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

Two men. One lighthouse. A mermaid and a seagull.

The number of physical core elements in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is small. The number of words to describe what The Lighthouse actually is? Quite different. Most people ostensibly call it ‘horror’ (even IMDb seems to think so), but true moments of horror are few and far between in this film. Perhaps ‘ghost story’ would be a better description, yet there doesn’t seem to be a ghost. Comparisons have been made to Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville (most notably Moby Dick), and these are pretty spot-on, but The Lighthouse is more. It is a unique cinematic experience that almost defies description.

This starts with the way it was filmed, with decades-old equipment in 35mm, in black and white with an aspect ratio of 1.2:1. Watching it one gets the sense that this could have easily been a silent film. The imagery is very expressive, the way it plays with light and shadows throwing shades of German Expressionism (in particular Nosferatu comes to mind, a film Eggers has actually shown interest in remaking). Just as expressive is the acting by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe (whom the ICS interviewed), both doing perhaps career-best work. There is barely a plot, to the point where the few important verbalised character beats could have been relayed through title cards, though that would rob us of the crackling dialogue filled to the brim with antiquated nautical terms, metaphors, and banter (seriously, your vocabulary will be vastly expanded).

Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) are charged with operating a remote lighthouse in late 19th century New England. Working on a four-week rotation, these two men will be condemned to each other for a prolonged period. And condemnation there will be. Wake, in charge, bosses Winslow around, seeming to derive pleasure from humiliating his subordinate. Winslow is tasked with the chores: scrubbing the floors, feeding the furnace with coal, giving the lighthouse a new paint job. Meanwhile, Wake stays high and dry (quite the opposite of Winslow, who toils through rain and wind) in the light room that houses the lamps and lenses. Winslow is not allowed up there, but he immensely desires to have a peek. A tug of war between the two seems to come to a peaceful conclusion as they near the end of their rotation, but when a raging storm prevents them from being picked up and dooms them to stay for weeks longer, a descent into a booze-infused madness begins (it is the only thing that doesn’t seem to go on ration).

Essentially a two-hander pitting the grizzled salty dog Wake against the taciturn, insecure rookie Winslow, The Lighthouse‘s intelligent screenplay (co-penned by Eggers and his brother Max) revels in the psychological warfare between the two, while giving the actors plenty of archaic, salt water-doused dialogue to wash away the chewed-off scenery. The story is told mostly from the viewpoint of Winslow, making Wake the antagonist, but there is something mysterious in Winslow’s past that keeps the possibility of an unreliable narrator open until the very end. This tension keeps the viewer on edge about what is to happen next, especially because the relationship between Wake and Winslow oscillates wildly between downright hostile and amicable, and even further.

These are masculine men, hardened at sea (Wake) or in the lumber business (Winslow), but their masculinity is questioned when their relationship evolves into some form of homoeroticism, when vulnerability washes in like a New England storm, and when erotic visions of mermaids pop up from the waves crashing on the rocky coast. The two men push and pull each other to a delirious end in a Promethean image that may haunt your dreams for a while, a moment in which the film comes closest to its horror roots. But their masculinity is torn down even more through various scenes of masturbation, which, while not explicit, are still pretty wild. Dafoe and Pattinson throw themselves in with full abandon, the older man combining a number of impressive monologues with some equally impressive flatulence, while Pattinson imbues his brooding character with a slow-burning inner volcano that can erupt at any second. Watching the two actors go at each other is like watching a no-holds-barred boxing match, the true winner of this slug fest being the audience.

The tone of the film is hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s the lighthouse, a character in its own right: this eerie, solemn beacon that attracts and repulses as a symbol of solitude. There are tonal resemblances to last year’s Annihilation, specifically its final act that also prominently features a lighthouse, but perhaps even more to Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (the first in a series of three) which that film is based on.

Yet there are also frequent bouts of almost absurdist humor reminiscent of Buster Keaton, and sardonic undertones throughout. Some of the most violent scenes make you burst out laughing. The Lighthouse is an amalgamation of the work of three madmen (meant in the most complimentary way possible) who throw their everything at the screen and create something intoxicating and delirious that you can’t take your eyes off of.

The trio is helped by some truly spectacular work by their collaborators: Jarin Blaschke’s stark black-and-white cinematography etches every groove in Dafoe’s and Pattinson’s lived-in faces, and convincingly evokes a silent era vibe (Blaschke’s work should be one of the main Oscar pushes A24 gives this film, as for other categories this is likely too ‘out there’). Mark Korven’s haunting, blaring score turns the brooding tension up to gale force. And Craig Lathrop’s tremendously detailed and researched production design of what basically comes down to a three-room set makes you forget that this lighthouse was built from the ground up.

To end this by describing The Lighthouse as ‘unlike anything you have ever seen’ feels like a cop-out, but it truly is a singular film. Eggers already crafted a unique piece of horror with The Witch (sorry, The VVitch), but The Lighthouse is far more unsettling, more intense, and more evocative. It cements the idea that Eggers’ debut was not a fluke, the Brooklyn-based writer/director establishing himself as a visually and narratively exciting auteur of outside-the-box filmmaking. All he needed to conjure up was two men, a lighthouse, a mermaid and a seagull. And a monkey pump, whatever that is.