Following the success of Robert Eggers’ film The Witch, a genuinely unsettling debut that injected traditional folk horror with nuanced political undertones and plenty of sinister goats, the UK has eagerly awaited the release of his psycho-sexual horror film, The Lighthouse. Set against the murky backdrop of 19th century New England, his latest film charts the lives of two lighthouse keepers, world-weary Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and new recruit Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), as they struggle to keep track of time and maintain sanity on the craggy rock on which they live and work. As the pair’s flimsy cottage is battered and progressively saturated with salt water, we begin to suspect the same fate also awaits their human forms, anticipating a descent into the vast waters and a devolution into legless, slithering species at one with barnacles, ‘bilge’ and ‘brine’.
The careful thought Eggers gives to even the subtlest lighting changes and camerawork is illustrated in one of Thomas’s particularly disquieting monologues showcasing an impressive performance from Dafoe. As Thomas delivers a speech hinting towards vile metamorphoses, the shot shifts suddenly, providing perspective instead from the ground, allowing us to look up as Winslow does at his companion’s looming, grimy visage illuminated by just a single lamp from below. The angle is so bizarre that his form is rendered almost inhuman, as he becomes increasingly mutated the more we are forced to watch.
Although mostly engaging, The Lighthouse does not manage to build a narrative strong enough to support the hallucinatory madness and displays of stylish technical prowess. The script, written by Eggers and his brother Max, borrows generously from the likes of Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The idea seems to be that this will come together with the grainy black and white 35mm film and the almost square aspect ratio (common throughout the 1920s and 30s) in such a way that the audience will feel they have uncovered a relic of nautical life long since given into the rot and slime. Yet, the script itself devalues this portrayal as possibly the film’s weakest link. A fault which is not improved by Pattinson’s uneven delivery, at times deafening and at others inaudible. Within longer monologues, the barnacled idiolect is occasionally employed to fantastic effect by Dafoe, but much of the film it so oversaturated with alliterative talk of things ‘Promethean’ and ‘protean’ that the horror quickly begins to buckle under the weight of parody.
Egger’s does delight in these dramatic shifts of tone across The Lighthouse, and moments of bathetic deflation punctuate almost every scene. These moments are often scatological in nature; in Thomas’s constant farting or Winslow’s unfortunate wind-swept chamber pot experience. The wind, always blowing in the wrong direction, as well as the confrontational Hitchcockian seagulls, work to remind us that here nature is not on their side. Yet, the scatological jokes and the purposefully ornate script frustratingly flatten moments where real tension and claustrophobia begin to encroach on the audience, making each choice feel unsure of itself, as if it is struggling to find a place within Eggers’ ambitious project.
Given that the increasingly popular indie production company A24 seems to have granted Eggers complete creative reign for this project, it would have been exciting to see these bathetic turns not dispensed with entirely, but taken even further still. Surprisingly, amongst the semen and filth, The Lighthouse was lacking in a dose of something even more perverse and jarring required to truly unsettle. A more incongruous score, for instance, might have helped to elevate the film to truly enjoyable absurdist levels. Instead, it felt as though Eggers was holding himself back from descending too far into the ridiculous, so that despite its humour The Lighthouse struggles not to take itself and its audience quite too seriously. This was a film in need of more mermaids, more story and less heavy-handed idiolect. Happily, however, it does seem to also mark Robert Pattinson’s break from The Twilight franchise from which he has so struggled to disentangle himself, once and for all. And you know what? I am pleased for him.