There has been a fascinating run of sophomore genre efforts of late. Ari Aster went full folk horror with Midsommar, Jordan Peele made the admirably ambitious Us and Jennifer Kent made the brutal revenge thriller The Nightingale. And into the ring re-enters Robert Eggers, whose debut The Witch enthralled and terrified in equal measure. From the woodlands of 17th-century New England to the coast of 19th-century
The film begins with a boat heading towards a lighthouse perched on an unforgiving island. Onboard are a pair of 'wickies', one on his first placement, the other a craggy old hand. From there we watch them go through their tasks to maintain the lighthouse in increasingly treacherous weather. Alcohol is liberally drunk, supplies run low and tempers rise, all to the deafening sound of a fog horn and the increasing sense that something might not be right here.
The Lighthouse benefits from a strangely hypnotic atmosphere, drenched in paranoia and dread. For large stretches you can't take your eyes off the screen and the extraordinaire tableaux being crafted. All of this is wrapped in Jarin Blaschke's stunning cinematography. Shot in stark black and white, with an aspect ratio of 1.19:1 (meaning it is close to a box), with often nightmarishly expressionistic lighting, every frame of this film feels like it could be separated and placed in an art gallery. It is understandable that this is the element that has broken through and earned The Lighthouse its single Oscar nomination.
The lack of awards love is a shame given the overall quality of the film. Eggers and his brother once again craft a screenplay seemingly torn from the pages of its setting, with deliciously archaic dialogue for the actors to chew. The impressive authenticity stretches to the setting, with the lighthouse built specifically for this film. Mark Korven's score builds tension effectively, marrying with The Lighthouse's wonderful soundscape, whilst Louise Ford's editing shows why she has one of the most interesting careers of her generation (Wildlife, Thoroughbreds and the upcoming Bad Education). There is a wealth of talent here and it would have been fabulous to have seen the film earn more of a presence amongst its fellow contenders.
The film is essentially a two-hander and there is an unvarnished quality to the lead turn. Robert Pattinson continues his run of impressive performances that test the very foundation of his star persona. His character becomes increasingly dislikeable as proceedings escalate and there is a hint of Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance to Pattinson. Willem Dafoe, on the other hand, morphs from a repugnant caricature of a salty sailor (quaffing drink, farting away, burst into shanties) into a far more pitiable figure. There is a line that caught me off-guard with the melancholy behind its absurdity. Together they play off each other, crafting a potent chemistry that feels a fascinating deconstruction of masculinity.
The Lighthouse is a marvellously unapproachable film. It offers little of the thrill of a mainstream horror (no jump scares or genre tropes here) and ends offering few answers of the mysteries that lie within. Is the film just a tale of two men going slowly mad in a confined space? Or is there something more? There are delights that I won't ruin here, but if you can endure the test this film represents, you will leave transfixed and beguiled. And a lot more nervous of seagulls. This really is a terrific work.