Several long, moody minutes pass in The Lighthouse’s opening scenes with no human sound — only wind, water, and the screeching caws of a few lonely seagulls. The first line of human dialogue, as it were, is a fart; so is the second. Which feels like a fitting entry point for Robert Eggers‘ darkly comic fable: a black-and-white fever dream of a film that keels between sea shanty and psychodrama, with heavy doses of the absurd.
Willem Dafoe is Thomas Wake, keeper of the light and captain to his bones, or at least in his own mind — a man whose crusty beard and bad leg and tobacco pipe telegraph everything you think need to know, though he’s happy to keep telling you more. Robert Pattinson‘s Ephraim Winslow, a mustachioed young journeyman, is just here on this remote pile of rocks for a two-week stint and (he hopes) quick money.
But the job — interminable hours of floor-swabbing and rock-hauling and trap-clearing — is hard and thankless, and subject solely to the squinty-eyed whims of Thomas, who seems thrilled to have both an indentured servant and a drinking buddy. Ephraim is wary at first, then obedient, then angry; what does all this busywork serve, other than Thomas’s own ego?
As the pair labor and spar and swig themselves nightly into 180-proof oblivion, the movie becomes both a character study and a sort of mad claustrophobic dance; Ephraim commits a brutal bird murder, and confesses something to Thomas that he can’t take back. And he begins to see things, too: a dead body, a screaming mermaid.
The mannered aye-matey dialogue often gives Lighthouse the performative feeling of a play, but Eggers (The Witch) is also a masterful stylist; judging by several cues, the story is set in some version of the 19th century, though it tends to treat time less as a set fact than a sort of metaphysical condition.
That may sound much better as an intellectual or actorly exercise than as an actual experience, and it’s true that the movie — with its pirate-y patois and meandering, bare-boned plot — is hardly the stuff of a Saturday cineplex. But in its final galvanizing moments, Eggers finds something both stranger and better: pure, wild wonder. B+