‘Twas the age of holler and spittle… Gruff men with wiry facial hair and woolen jumpers hurled accusations and sometimes kitchen utensils at each other amidst howling wind and clattering shutters while storms battered the coastline outside. These men were the thin grizzled line, insulating land-lubbing civilization from the slimy, barnacled abyss that lit their lamps and flavored their tea kettles, not that the soft-handers seemed grateful for it.
This is the world of The Lighthouse, a film from The Witch director Robert Eggers, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, as a crusty lighthouse keeper and his green apprentice, respectively, on a remote New England outpost in the latter 19th century (a setting you could either piece together from disparate clues throughout the movie or simply read in the one-line synopsis on IMDB). It’s a romantic setting for anyone who’s ever stared out at the horizon in reverie while biting down on a pipe, or anyone who’s ever listened to that Stan Rogers song about the “cook’s in the scuppers with the staggers and jags” and wondered what the fuck that was all about.
Eggers, naturally, has cast Willem Dafoe in this black and white “Academy ratio” (almost square) mood piece about two lonely, horny lighthouse keepers who sometimes want to kill each other and other times maybe just want to screw each other, and in any case, are certainly driving each other insane. The Moby Dick parallel is so overt that Pattinson’s character at one point even screams that Dafoe’s must’ve come from that book. The overall effect is that the movie feels a little bit like a relentlessly un-winking version of Wes Anderson, where Willem Dafoe is basically dressed the same and speaking in a similarly outdated professional patois, only now instead of it being a cutesy in-joke about two little kids falling in love, it’s a bleak hallucinatory journey into the dark hearts of grizzled men.
It almost goes without saying that Willem Dafoe is perfect for this part. He’s always looked like a craggy, picturesquely gnarled live oak tree in an Ansel Adams photograph, such that shooting him in black and white almost seems redundant. He snarls and shouts and spits and farts (his character’s flatulence is actually running joke) like he’s been speaking in this salty seamen’s argot since birth. And with Eggers at the helm, who previously reintroduced us to a dead 17th-century pilgrim vernacular in The Witch, you know the dialogue will be meticulously authentic.
For fans of The Witch and the sea-curious, The Lighthouse is just about exactly what you’d expect — a bleak, beautiful, frequently hilarious mindfuck. But is it weird to wish that there was also… I don’t know… more?
In his follow-up to the movie that introduced us to Black Phillip, The Witch‘s black-goat-that-might-be-the-devil, The Lighthouse‘s equivalent of Black Phillip, which in this case is a malevolent one-eyed seagull, gets short shrift. Whereas Black Phillip seemed like a means to something greater, the one-eyed seagull seems a bit like a dead-end — more like an Easter egg than a true agent of chaos. (Couldn’t they at least give him a memorable name? John Screech? Jim Webb?)
Watching Dafoe and Pattinson go at each other is almost endlessly compelling — Pattinson’s grasp of the 1800s Kennedy family accent he’s supposed to be doing is a lot shakier than Dafoe’s, but he has a great face for it — but the movie really is exactly that and not much more. Like The Witch, Eggers pins you so firmly into the time period that it’s hard not to feel claustrophobic and ringwormy — and to feel a great sense of relief wash over you when you finally emerge from the theater, back into sunlight and modern times.
In both The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers imprisons us inside his characters’ psychology — with both its limitations and its fanciful conceptions of the supernatural. But in The Witch (wouldst though like to live deliciously?), that psychology eventually externalized. What was in the characters’ minds ultimately became a bridge to the fantastic.
The Lighthouse occasionally flirts with that kind of externalization but never consummates. Some of the men’s fancies are beautifully visualized (including what I will describe only as an extremely vaginal apparition), but they remain just that — fancies. It’s never clear that what’s happening in the men’s wizened heads alters the world outside it.
All of which is to say: The Lighthouse is very much a movie about two dudes going crazy in a lighthouse. It’s easily the most two-dudes-going-crazy-in-a-lighthouse movie ever made.