Following his atmospheric debut The Witch, Robert Eggers explores new visual territory with this black and white, square-framed psychological freakout while covering similar thematic ground: fringe characters from a bygone era lose their minds due to isolation, superstition, sexual frustration, and the elements. What The Lighthouse adds to the mix is star power and alcohol.
The film opens with two strangers beginning a four-week shift on an island off the New England coast: a veteran lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe), who speaks, limps, and drinks like a quintessential old salt, and his new assistant (Robert Pattinson), a gruff young man who doesn't seem to want to be there. Things get weird rather quickly when the assistant, who calls himself Ephraim, spies the older man, known as Tom, engaging in shall we say "odd" activity while babysitting the lighthouse's lantern during the night. When Tom later reveals that his previous assistant went mad on the island and perished, you know what's in store for Ephraim. However, you might not expect just how insane The Lighthouse actually gets.
With its tone falling somewhere between the starkness of Bela Tarr and the mania of Guy Maddin, Eggers's sweaty, antique-looking film certainly isn't boring, but watching it eventually becomes a chore, thanks to its claustrophobic atmosphere, its baffling hallucinations, and its many scenes of Dafoe and Pattinson drunkenly antagonizing each other. Some viewers, in fact, may find the film little more than a handsomely-shot actors' workshop.
Eggers cowrote the script with his brother Max and, as with The Witch, some of the story's details are taken directly from memoirs and reports from actual lighthouse keepers. And just as The Witch feels like it was made for a 17th century audience, so too does The Lighthouse feel like a cautionary tale for people of its time (presumably the 1890s), a twisted sea yarn spun for those who believe. Eggers once again shows a mastery over his medium, and he's definitely a filmmaker to follow. But at 110 minutes, The Lighthouse is an exhausting watch. I would not choose to sit through it a second time.