Mixed Signals

Nick Pinkerton on Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse (2019)

Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse, 2019, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 109 minutes. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.

A SON OF NEW HAMPSHIRE, Robert Eggers, in the course of two features, has established himself as a fanatic fetishist of the old, weird New England of popular imagination. His first, The Witch (2015), set in the forests of Plymouth Colony, takes place in the seventeenth-century Massachusetts now associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his reckonings with the Puritan legacy, while his follow-up, the late Victorian period The Lighthouse, moves out to sea. We’re now in the territory of Herman Melville, whose work is at one point invoked, though Providence native H. P. Lovecraft is perhaps the more pertinent point of reference in a film that gives glimpses of slithering tentacles and suggestions of gateways to a terrible beyond.

Eggers’s latest film, shot in black-and-white and with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio even more square than the classic Academy box, is a proper two-hander following two lighthouse keepers, who are dropped off to set up shop on a godforsaken hunk of coal-black rock somewhere well off the northeastern Atlantic seaboard. The elder, Tom Wake, is played by Willem Dafoe, who, with his florid beard and uniform cap, looks like an American cousin to Van Gogh’s postman. The younger, played by Robert Pattinson, introduces himself as Ephraim Winslow, a former lumberjack with an extravagant moustache who is trying out this line of work for the first time.

Straightaway, the duo finds themselves at odds. Winslow, a teetotaler, turns down a dinner toast by the inveterate boozer Wake, and stonewalls his chatty coworker’s invitations to palaver. Senior and superior to the lad, Wake is in a position to make Winslow miserable, and promptly sets out to do exactly that. Wake minds the light by night, while Winslow does the chores by day, but this division of labor doesn’t cut down on the friction, as Wake mercilessly browbeats his overworked underling for the slightest perceived infractions. Run ragged, Winslow becomes susceptible to strange imaginings—he sees mermaids washed up on the rocks, evidence of foul play pulled up in lobster traps, and suspects supernatural goings-on in the locked beacon. The night before they’re to be relieved from duty, a truce is finally reached when Winslow agrees to unplug the jug and have a swig. But then the boat never shows, and a savage storm keeps salvation from the mainland away, and the mounting tension between the men is hardly relaxed by the introduction of alcohol to their already volatile situation.

Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse, 2019, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 109 minutes. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.

No small amount of attraction to the time and setting here seems to be a connoisseur’s ear for sea-salt patois, which has been carefully collected by Eggers and his cowriter, his brother Max Eggers. Wake is a font of colorful similes—“like a sperm whale’s pecker,” “like a silver whorehouse token”—and apocalyptic invective littered with alliteration, as in a torrential curse in which the phrase “Till you turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine” is not even the most purplish passage. Antique vocabulary abounds: Wake refers to Winslow as a “timberman,” to the lightkeep’s profession as that of the “wickie.” Watching the film, I found myself thinking repeatedly about Owen Wilson’s affected urban cowboy novelist Eli Cash in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), musing druggily on one of his earlier novels: “Well, Wildcat was written in a kind of obsolete vernacular . . .”

Language, however, increasingly ceases to be of issue as The Lighthouse proceeds and as a bughouse atmosphere infests the island, its isolated residents crawling up the walls. Drunken to the point of gibbering incoherence, held hostage by lashing waves, vacillating between an intimacy breaching the homoerotic and a caged-dog violence, our weary wickies are worn down to a state more animal than man—Wake is even finally reduced to the state of a barking dog. Is it possible that Eggers saw Dafoe in Paul Schrader’s barely screened Adam Resurrected (2008), in which Dafoe’s demeaning reduction of a subjugated prisoner to playing the part of a dog exemplifies the horror of the Holocaust? Perhaps, but if any political parable is to be found in The Lighthouse, I missed it. While pointedly nineteenth-century in its jargon, the movie depicts an intergenerational dynamic that might take place almost anywhere in human history: that of someone middle-aged in a position of entrenched power pitched against a youth that has as yet achieved none—when Wake disparages Winslow for his laziness, you can hear a distant relation to the contemporary think piece of “The Problem with Millennials . . .”

The conclusion of The Lighthouse raises this universal struggle to the level of myth in a violent image that simultaneously evokes the wounds of Oedipus and Prometheus. Like so much in The Lighthouse, it is presented in a striking composition, bleakly beautiful. Eggers is working again with The Witch cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, here shooting with 1930s vintage Baltar lenses, and the way in which they represent backbreaking work through textured images of such sensual loveliness at times recalls Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011).

Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse, 2019, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 109 minutes.

See the care taken in plucking choice linguistic jewels from dusty maritime dictionaries and the works of Sarah Orne Jewett, in every precise #OnePerfectShot composition, even in the practical effects, as when a seagull gets dashed into oblivion—there is nothing out of place in the fastidiously detailed The Lighthouse. Likewise in the film’s evocation of a disappeared world, with every implement in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters—a full-scale station built on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia—and every square inch of the place showing the signs of being scuffed up, lived in, puked on, notched and knocked around. If you didn’t know that Eggers had several costume and production design credits to his name before watching The Lighthouse, you might have guessed as much. As for Dafoe and Pattinson, two consistently committed and commanding actors, they give harrowed, go-for-broke, flailingly physical performances, such as when chanting a shanty while locking arms during a heedless drunken reel that has them spinning about.

So above reproach are the constituent parts of The Lighthouse that if filmmaking were a matter of ticking off boxes, this would be nothing less than a masterpiece. As it is, the perfect-attendance award punctiliousness to the affair—the press kit devotes space to the process of finding period-accurate foghorn sounds—renders something more impressive than overpowering. The Lighthouse is an immaculately curated film, but that’s not quite the same thing as the inexact science of direction, and the result is a movie too overwrought and worried-over to convey the sense of either loneliness or claustrophobia that it strains toward. When you should feel the disgust of Winslow’s having to huff his roommate’s rancid farts, what’s more palpable is authorial heavy breathing, the grimacing effort to ram across every elaborated, sweated-over effect.

Eggers is assiduous and thorough, and I suspect he knows very well the entire lineage of his opening image of his characters’ approach to the island—Arnold Böcklin’s painting Isle of the Dead by way of Val Lewton’s 1945 film of the same title by way of the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010)—and more likely than not that he’s caught up with the essential lighthouse films, such as Roy Boulting’s Thunder Rock (1942), as well. But studiousness only gets you so far, and rigor without an animating passion builds barren edifices, wearisomely well-made films deemed great simply because they’re incapable of being, for even a moment, “bad.” There’s pleasure to be had in watching Dafoe and Pattinson thrash about in the photogenic trap that Eggers has laid for them, but how much more than in the irksome, erratic films they appeared in this year where they’re not pursued by a laborious idea of mastery: Dafoe in Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso, and Pattinson in Claire Denis’s High Life? These are movies that breathe, whereas in The Lighthouse, even the eruptions of violence have an air of rehearsed frenzy, like the sort of thing you’d encounter in a sturdy stage production of The Miracle Worker. As such, the sinister noises that draw Winslow toward the beacon can never produce a sense of real terror—these are the sounds of a stiflingly scrupulous author at work, turning his movie’s screws to the point of inertia.

The Lighthouse opens in US theaters on October 18. 

Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified the movie’s format as digital; The Lighthouse was shot on 35 mm film.