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Review: 'The Lighthouse' Is Robert Eggers Boundary-Pushing Follow-Up To 'The Witch'

By Caspar Salmon | Film | May 21, 2019 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | May 21, 2019 |


Anybody who watched Robert Eggers’ first film, The Witch, and wondered whether its forays into comedy were intentional (reminder: The Witch’s villain is a goat called Black Phillip) will receive giddy confirmation from watching The Lighthouse, which pushes the boundaries of form even further, tipping into outright farce on several occasions. That this comes in a film that pulsates with anxiety and a turbulent sense of impending doom makes Eggers’ achievement all the more extraordinary. The Lighthouse is a dizzying, joyous celebration, a riot of smell and clanging noise dressed up in formally austere arthouse clothing, whose unsettling crescendo of derangement pushes the spectator into a state of semi-rapture.

When the film begins, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is taking up a position as a sort of lackey to Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe), a sour and gnarly old sea-dog who serves as the lighthouse keeper on a remote, rocky outcrop off the coast of New England. Wake is a brusque boss, forbidding Winslow to tend to the lighthouse’s lantern but setting him instead to demeaning, sullying work. In the evenings Wake gets wrecked on grog, becoming voluble and fiery with booze, his long ramblings drenched in briny words and archaic phrases, sounding like pirates and mariners from hoary old shanties. Winslow cuts a more reserved figure, sticking to the island’s fetid water and seething with resentment at his elder. It isn’t long before Winslow, who is apparently cursed by a witchy figurine of a mermaid that he discovers in his mattress, and who finds himself beset by a vicious gull that needles and pecks at him, starts to crack.

It’s the form that this descent into chaos takes which sets The Lighthouse apart. Where you might expect a conventional horror film with a neat resolution that explains away the visions and mania, this movie is content to lean into the madness, seemingly reveling in its aggregation of berserk imagery. In so doing, it literally dirties itself in a way that is so gleeful and enjoyable. At the start, The Lighthouse’s black-and-white rigor, its startlingly beautiful formalism, calls to mind early 20th-century photography, full of texture and shadows. This aspect continues throughout, but the film’s pristine set and costumes—heck, Robert Pattinson’s pristine body—are set to get a battering. Before long Winslow (who may not be called Winslow at all) is pissing into a floating tin cup and half-missing, finally falling into the surrounding dirty water; or beating off to troubled visions of scaly mermaids cross-cut with worrying visions and slurpy, vulva-like sea-creatures, along with more violent and disturbing imagery; or chaining Wake like a dog, and leading him on all fours from the lighthouse while instructing him to bark. At these times, the film approaches the sort of joyous mayhem that you suspect Darren Aronofsky was aiming for with mother!: Eggers succeeds in completely tearing down every veneer of civilization in his film, leaving his two characters wholly bereft by the film’s gobsmacking final shot.

Eggers has drawn wonderful performances from Pattinson and Dafoe, who show themselves willing and able in every way. It’s quite something to see how Dafoe whips up a storm with the tirades he unleashes against poor Winslow, the actor gnawing on this crazily elegiac language like a starving man; it’s something, too, to behold Pattinson submitting to Winslow’s degradation and suffering, pushing his sweating body to the limit in outfits that become ever more revealing until he is finally nude and panting. As the pair of them enact a strange, aggressive, homoerotic, Oedipal rapport, in scenes that find them chanting and fighting, shouting and cuddling, the two actors are at their very height, becoming ever more fearless.

The film’s keening mythology, its haunting pictures, heightened lingo, joyous performances, grimy sensuality, not to mention any of the hilarious, bawdy quips which it would be sacrilegious to quote-ruin for a virgin audience: all of these elements make The Lighthouse a truly singular viewing experience, one which consciously aims to produce a rare feeling in arthouse audiences, which is one of outright pleasure.

The Lighthouse made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Directors’ Fortnight.

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Kristy Puchko is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.

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