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The Lighthouse, starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, is easily one of the wildest films of the year

From the director of The Witch comes a psychosexual drama, a pitch-black comedy, and a tale of two men driving each other nuts.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse.
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Lighthouse is, I can safely say, one of the most over-the-top movies I’ve ever had the good fortune to see. Robert Eggers — whose last film, the wild 2015 horror movie The Witch, lit Sundance on fire when it premiered — has clearly established himself as a no-holds-barred auteur of dread, madness, and mannered period dialogue.

Also gallows comedy. Also horror. What I’m trying to say is, The Lighthouse is a blast.

The Lighthouse strands Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson on an island with a lighthouse and some devious seagulls, surrounded by a fierce sea. It’s somehow a whacked-out period comedy populated by saltily bearded sea dogs, a psychosexual drama about dramatically fractured psyches, a Beckett-style dive into guilt and shame, and, at moments, kind of a takeoff on Aquaman.

What The Lighthouse is not is boring. But its pyrotechnics aren’t designed to mask below-par filmmaking. Shot in grainy black and white and in Academy ratio (which appears square to most audiences), it’s like a movie made by a director who knows just what he’s going for and just how to get there. Like The Witch, it’s a real shot in the arm and a riot, to boot.

The Lighthouse tells the tale of a pair of seamen going slowly nuts

The Lighthouse tells one of those stories not worth summarizing in much detail, because while everything happens, very little actually occurs. Two men, a crusty old veteran (Dafoe) and someone younger and less experienced (Pattinson), travel to a rocky island (presumably somewhere off a New England coast) to tend to its lighthouse for a month.

We see this in a rough-looking black-and-white image, which creates the impression of a time long, long ago. The first sequences look as if they could be ink drawings or wood-carved prints from an edition of Moby-Dick. As they arrive on the island, the two men stare directly into the camera and arrange themselves as if posing for a portrait. The veteran chomps down on a pipe.

But what’s going on in the world they inhabit isn’t of much interest to them. They’re more interested in the microcosmic task of getting through everyday life. There’s a manual for lighthouse tenders, which the younger man has read and learned that, for instance, they aren’t permitted to drink while on duty, and they’re meant to rotate days tending to the light.

His boss is uninterested in the details. He insists on tending to the light by himself every night and sleeping through the day. Meanwhile, the younger man cleans the cistern, hauls coal, empties the chamber pots, cleans the floors, whitewashes the lighthouse tower, and tries to keep his head down while his companion seems most interested in provoking him.

It’s clear, however, that something really weird is going on. Things are happening in the lighthouse tower at night that don’t seem normal. A seagull on the island seems unusually aggressive. And there is, of course, the matter of the old man’s former assistant, who apparently went mad ...

The Lighthouse is wild, woolly, and an excellent piece of filmmaking

Probably the most delightful thing about The Lighthouse is that it gives Willem Dafoe the role of a lifetime, with an excuse to beardily, craggily cavort about the lighthouse hollering orders like, “Find some chirk in ye, lad!” and, “Now I’m a wickie, and a wickie I is!” and say that things “sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker.” (Pattinson is also at his height; this is great acting.)

As with The Witch, in which much of the mannered, pre-colonial American dialogue was lifted from court transcripts of witch trials, The Lighthouse (a post-movie card tells us) draws on texts from Herman Melville and other early seafaring tales, especially Sarah Orne Jewett, who often wrote about whalers on the southern Maine coast.

You could almost think of Eggers’s films as historical or nonfiction, except that he takes those transcripts and factual dialogue and turns in the most fantastical possible rendering of the stories behind them. Eggers said after the release of The Witch that he was inspired by his New England childhood, involving many visits to Plimoth Plantation, the sprawling living history museum where actors play characters from colonial Massachusetts. You can see the influence.

Reportedly, Eggers has since been attached to a Nosferatu remake and a miniseries about Rasputin, both of which sound very interesting. But with his first two features, he’s reached specifically into early American history and injected it with wild, menacing enchantment and terror, like a kid flipping rocks over and finding creepy-crawlies underneath that rear their heads and bite.

Yet the influences are not all American — not by a long shot. Samuel Beckett lurks around in the film. Some of the wilder sequences (one of which includes Pattinson’s character masturbating to a tiny ivory figure of a mermaid) employ fevered montages worthy of the Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, or German expressionism. You get hints of early Italian horror in the thick black spaces in the images, and some sequences even recall ancient mythologies.

So much happens in The Lighthouse that it soon becomes clear this isn’t a film aiming to tell one story with one interpretation, or even a few. (There’s a reading of The Lighthouse that’s about marriage, or about terrible roommates.) There’s horror and gaslighting and high-on-helium-style comedy and bits of Freud scattered about; in essence, it’s a pile of things that don’t add up to any one thing but do leave you feeling both elated and creeped out. The Lighthouse is a triumphant second feature for Eggers, another brick in a loopy retelling of American history — and audiences ready to go along for the ride will not be let down.

The Lighthouse premiered in the Director’s Fortnight section at Cannes and will be released by A24.

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