I saw The Lighthouse at TIFF, and five weeks later, I am still not sure I actually like this film. I admire it, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it, but did I enjoy it? Does enjoyment even matter when a film is so specifically evocative and provoking? “Like” is too small a concept for a film as extravagantly strange as The Lighthouse. Maybe it doesn’t matter if anyone likes The Lighthouse, as long as you’re captivated by it. If it is fascinating, maybe pleasure can take a backseat. Director Robert Eggers’ first feature film, The Witch, happens in a horror world so acutely drawn it is palpable in its wild despair and haunting paranoia. The Lighthouse is a different kind of experience, more of an ecstatic frenzy: the cinematic equivalent of a drunken bender. Maybe not every moment is enjoyable, but it certainly leaves an impression.
Set in a land of incomprehensible old-timey accents, The Lighthouse is a two-hander between Willem Dafoe as Thomas, an experienced lighthouse keeper, and Robert Pattinson as Ephraim, the newbie. They are isolated on an inhospitable rock far out to sea, where they tend to the light and a foghorn that makes the most godawful, nerve-shattering sound. Eggers comes from a production and costume design background, and he immediately established himself as a director with an acute mise en scene. His films don’t just look lived in, they look tangible, less like historical reenactment and more like time travel. The Lighthouse is so authentic to late 1800s sea-dog life that it just LOOKS like it reeks. The clothes look itchy, the food undoubtedly tastes like weevils and sadness, the smell could kill a skunk, and I have never been more convinced that every character in a movie has lice.
Shot in rich black and white by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who also worked on The Witch, and filmed in an old-television friendly 4x3 aspect ratio, The Lighthouse feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. There is a similar feeling of strangeness hidden under mundane, repetitive action, and the extreme isolation of the lighthouse—and that thrice-damned foghorn—quickly sends Thomas and Ephraim spiraling into madness, questioning what is real, what is imagination, are we just toys in a box? And there are farts! The Lighthouse has solid fart jokes and it addresses the practicalities of mermaid sex. This film is definitely Not Boring.
But the fart jokes and the mermaid sex wouldn’t work without Dafoe and Pattinson. They are tremendous, with Dafoe giving a patented, committed-to-the-end bravura performance, and Pattinson’s performance feels like the culmination of a decade of idiosyncratic work, in which his offbeat choices add to his character’s untrustworthiness. The scope of their performance is so great that despite taking place in such a limited location and featuring only two people—and the occasional mermaid—The Lighthouse never feels small. It feels grandiose, expansive, like a world beyond the world. It also never feels like they are Acting! Despite both using silly voices and giving histrionic monologues, both Dafoe and Pattison remain grounded in the (increasingly surreal) reality of the world they inhabit. No matter how strange The Lighthouse gets, that feeling of authenticity is not lost.
I can’t promise that you will like The Lighthouse. I am still unsure on that score, myself. But I can promise you will not see an American film this year stranger or more precisely realized than The Lighthouse. It will certainly make an impression, and you will not easily forget it. It invites discussion, of what is real and what isn’t, and which objects are imbued with special purpose and to what end. Is it literal or figurative? Does its strangeness enamor or repel? Do we search for meaning or embrace the chaos? Perhaps it is really a story about seething generational resentment, or the inevitable cycle of destruction brought about by man. Or maybe it’s just a story about a couple of guys driven mad by loneliness and farts. Either way, there is nothing else like The Lighthouse this year.