Light and sky. Rain and wind. Sea and smoke. These are the fearsome natural elements that Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” explores, creating a modern cinema that manages to look both backward and forward. Backward, to an almost square format and to the visual sorcery of Bergman and Dreyer, of Herzog and Lang. But forward as well, to Eggers’ own imagining of a peculiarly American past, and toward his own brutal conception of masculinity in a death match with itself.
The seemingly simple story of two lighthouse keepers — one older (Willem Dafoe, in a titanic performance), one younger (Robert Pattinson, equally bracing) — thrillingly operates on multiple levels. For me, the film serves as a parable for alcoholism, capturing the mania of its deadly grip with a visual perversion of space and the narrative collapse of time. It also plays as a mythic story of human conquest and folly, with one man squabbling for supremacy over another, while both face a storm that drives them to madness and ruin.
But perhaps most powerfully the film creates an origin story about identity itself — as older and younger look into the eyes of one another, each a wretched reflection of their failures. Sometimes looking in a mirror is the most unbearable of gazes. But “The Lighthouse,” like “The Witch” before it, offers its self-reflection in a new form, one that’s wild and masterful, suffused with beauty, humor, and surprise. To think that the kids are catching this work of art from a seat at their mall multiplex might make “The Lighthouse” one of this year’s most hopeful films.
Karyn Kusama’s films include “Girlfight,” “Jennifer’s Body” and “Destroyer.”