Fade in on an evening commute. We’re on the ocean, vast and pitiless. Framed against the ominous soundtrack of a foghorn’s elephantine bellow, a dinghy comes into focus, making its incremental progress with two stoic men behind the wheel. Their destination: oblivion.
More literally, these rugged individuals — Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow and Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake — are headed to work at a lighthouse, but it doesn’t take long for any notion of the literal to be swept away in the bruising current. Director Robert Eggers, in this stunning follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2016 feature The Witch, once again grounds a spartan narrative in gothic myth and superstition, borrowing from influences far and wide to craft a hypnotic mood piece that’s entirely his own.
The resulting film is an unsettling critique of toxic masculinity that lands somewhere between art-house and grindhouse. On the scale of sickening cinematic experiences, The Lighthouse is only a couple notches below Salo and The Human Centipede. It may be one of the year’s best films, but I can count the people I’d recommend it to on less than one hand.
For Winslow and Wake, their workplace is a site of thankless, unglamorous toil. Aside from the cooking and lighting duties, all of it seems to fall on the battered shoulders of Winslow, a former timberman with a mysterious past who’s looking for a fresh start in the middle of nowhere. His 9-to-5 is a relentless itinerary of scutwork: mending a leaky roof, shoveling the coal, sweeping the floors, emptying the chamber pots, hanging perilously on a rope and painting the lighthouse’s exterior. Everything is rickety; everything creaks.
Wake, Winslow’s crusty, dentally impaired superior, takes a perverse glee in piling on the gruntwork and watching his colleague flail. Wake’s own mobility is hobbled: An ex-mariner married to the lighthouse, he walks with a peg leg — though the story of how he acquired it keeps changing — which, combined with his grizzly beard and love of drink, suggests Captain Ahab as envisioned by Hemingway. “You’re like a parody!” Winslow spits at his supervisor, in a rare moment of lucidity, prompting us to wonder if Wake actually exists. Dafoe, in another masterly, skin-crawling performance of wide-eyed paranoia and intermittent mania, affects a brogue that, like the archetypal character itself, we can never quite place.
Winslow, too, feels out of place in the windswept island. His dreams are overcome with visions of mermaids whose banshee wails spook him awake. In echoes of Hitchcock, the gulls around the lighthouse view him as an intruder, first blocking his path in squawking standoffs, and later attacking him directly. It’s all an omen to an inevitable storm of Biblical proportions, which lands on these sorry souls just when they’re supposed to be relieved, and with their rations exhausted. Abandoned with nothing but liquor and dark thoughts, their interactions come to represent machismo at its most repugnant and self-destructive.
As objective reality disintegrates around the characters, and madness reigns, The Lighthouse hearkens back to John Boorman, early Werner Herzog and Persona-era Ingmar Bergman. Eggers is an exciting formalist whose uncommercial visual aesthetic—stark 35mm black-and-white photography in an oppressively square aspect ratio — functions, like the script itself, to grind his characters down. Though the screenplay, co-written with Max Eggers, contains breathtaking flights of verbal fancy, silent films loom largest in The Lighthouse’s DNA: It’s not often a 21st-century movie deploys a genuine Soviet-style associative montage, but Eggers goes there, in a sequence ripe with psychosexual angst.
The Lighthouse is rich in symbolism, with the lantern itself, beaming from the top of the phallic edifice, signifying everything that is, to Winslow, unattainable. Yet there is dark humor in this story’s filthy unraveling that persists until the very end. By the time Winslow finally trudges up the spiral staircase to bask in the glow, I can almost guarantee the theater will have emptied somewhat, because nearly every viewer has his or her limits. Those that have stuck around will be the horror-film purists, the cinephiles, the Brechtians, the ones that, despite all the carnage, can still take a joke.
THE LIGHTHOUSE. Director: Robert Eggers; Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe; Distributor: A24; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at Regal Royal Palm Beach, Cinemark Boynton Beach, Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Coral Ridge 10 in Fort Lauderdale, and other area theaters