There is one thing that is crystal clear by the end of Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse, this is 100% the film he wanted to make. There are plot elements and themes in the film that are murkier but the film comes to us unmarred by studio notes and test audience reactions. As a result, The Lighthouse is a strikingly original film.
Full disclosure, I walked out of the film puzzled at what I had just seen. I wasn't sure I liked the film even though I was certain that I respected it. As time passes since seeing it, the film keeps replaying in my head. It forces me to wrestle with its alluring images and cryptic nature. As time passes, I like the film more and more.
The plot of the film is fairly simple. Two men, younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and older Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), are sent to an isolated lighthouse to work a four-week stint. During that time, they talk, drink, fart, fight and slowly go mad while also becoming closer to one another.
Eggers is a master at creating a sense of place. The grey on a darker grey palette and boxed in aspect ratio harken back to the silent era of film. The sound design, which deserves an Oscar, creates a cacophony of clanking gears, crackling waves, ungodly roars from the horn and the cry of seagulls. Paired with the sometimes nightmarish images, the film has an uncanny way of making you feel the approaching madness.
Madness does come as Thomas has an authoritarian rule over Ephraim. Ephraim is always on the ground level, taking care of the menial chores such as mopping floors while Thomas remains at the top, basking in the light. Each night the men come together to eat and drink and try to have conversations. It becomes clear that Thomas resents Ephraim for his youth and vigor. Ephraim in turn questions Thomas's experience believing him to be a mad drunk. The tight structure of these dinner scenes steadily traces the rift between them.
Ephraim is our protagonist but he is unreliable at best. We are never certain that his visions are real. Mermaids, tentacles and an unruly seagull all may be part of his psyche under stress or maybe there is truly something supernatural at play. The film plays with our sense of time as the nights blur together and the visions become more frequent.
What does all this add up to? Well at first I wasn't sure. The more I ponder the film the more I see the deconstruction of artificial masculinity. Several key lines of witty dialogue observe the way men front manliness. Both men have personas that end up shattered by the end of the film. Their masculinity shifts far from their first nearly silent interaction to almost kissing one night in drunken revelry.
The Lighthouse is not going to be for everyone and I initially wasn't sure I enjoyed it. Funny how a powerful film can claw around in your brain until you begin to deal with it and address its mysteries. The film didn't quite have the emotional connection for me like Egger's The Witch but it still left an impact. Dafoe and Pattinson deserve awards come Oscar season. They are truly remarkable.