When Roger Ebert first saw Pulp Fiction, he wasn’t sure if he had just witnessed one of 1994’s best films or one of the worst. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse ignites a similar debate within. This is one of those movies that nobody can digest after one viewing. Much like There Will Be Blood or Black Swan, it’s a film that you need to take a couple days to fully digest. Even then, you’ll still be left with an assortment of questions. What was the director’s intention? Who was the hero and who was the villain in the grand scheme? Is this a work of brilliance or a work of lunacy? Having taken a week to think about it, I can safely answer one question. It’s one of the year’s best.
In the nineteenth century, a timberman by the name of Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives on a remote island to work as a wickie for a few weeks. Winslow is accompanied by Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), a seasoned wickie who’s the epitome of every salty sea dog cliché. Can two lighthouse keepers share a confined living space without driving each other crazy? The short answer is no. The long answer is much more complicated, as we’re never fully sure which of these men is going crazy. Wake has a strange fascination with the lighthouse, stripping nude in it at night and forbidding Winslow from going to the top. This only makes Winslow want to see what’s inside more, especially since Wake has designated him to the menial grunt work. Winslow is no more trustworthy than Wake, as dark secrets from his past start coming into light.
Pattinson continues to challenge himself as an actor, turning in an exhausting performance as a man slowly being pushed to his limits. Winslow is a ticking time bomb and while we don’t know what exactly will happen when he finally goes off, it’s clearly not going to be pretty. Dafoe gives what may be the most daring performance of this chapter in his career. Wade talks like the Sea Captain from The Simpsons, which would come off as too silly and off-putting if any other actor played him. With Dafoe helming the ship, however, Wake leaves the audience on bated breath with every word he says. He delivers a commanding, god-like performance, sounding as if he could summon a hurricane like Poseidon.
Winslow and Wake can only seem to tolerate each other when they’re skunk-drunk. When they aren’t drinking or at each other’s throats, Winslow is fantasizing about a mermaid. Of course, given the film’s surreal tone, who’s to say that the mermaid is a fantasy? The only lady Wake has eyes for is his lighthouse, which could either be a beacon of enlightenment or a beacon of insanity. In any case, Winslow grows tired of watching Wake hog the lighthouse and becomes determined to break in. Is he opening up Pandora’s box or the Stargate, though?
The Lighthouse is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It only makes sense that Eggers would drape such an ambiguous film in shades of gray. Jarin Blaschke’s black-and-white cinematography, coupled in with the 1.19:1 aspect ratio, creates a confining sense of dread that refuses to relent. It truly feels like the audience is trapped on a small island and the only escape into one’s own madness. This uncomfortable sentiment is only intensified by Mark Korven’s score, which turns a foghorn into a musical instrument. A film this unsettling isn’t meant to entertain everyone. Once you’ve seen the light, however, you’ll never be able to look away.