“The Lighthouse,” the second feature directed by Robert Eggers (“The Witch”), is a gripping and turbulent drama that draws on a number of influences, though it merges them into its own fluky gothic historical ominoso art-thriller thing. Set in the 1890s, and suffused with foghorns and epic gusts of wind, as well as a powerfully antiquated sense of myth and legend, the movie is shot in shimmeringly austere black-and-white, with a radically old-fashioned 1.19:1 aspect ratio (a nearly perfect square, like that of an early sound film). That lends everything that happens a weird immersive clarity. The entire film is set on a desolate island of jagged black rock, where a gnarly old sea dog, played by Willem Dafoe, declaiming his lines like Captain Ahab on a bender, is tending the lighthouse there for four weeks along with his new assistant, played with surly reticence — and then an aggression that bursts out of him like a demon — by Robert Pattinson.
They’re the only characters in the movie (unless you count a flirtatious mermaid siren, played by Valeriia Karaman, who flashes by in sequences that feel like dreams), but that doesn’t mean this is any sort of minimalist drama. As a filmmaker, Eggers is a maximalist — he stages “The Lighthouse” as a fetishistically authentic tale of grueling conditions, drunken meals by lone candlelight, and merciless physical labor, though the film is also a kind of ghost story (the ghosts, too, may be mere figments; or not). It’s also a combative two-hander in which the men, vying for power and camaraderie, chat and joke and jostle and take the piss and go at each other as if they were characters written by Sam Shepard in a sea-shanty frame of mind.
“The Lighthouse,” made with extraordinary skill, is a movie you can’t pigeonhole, and that’s part of its appeal (though that could also make it a bit of a marketing challenge). Yet even if you’ve never seen “The Witch,” you may feel in your bones that you’re watching a supernatural shocker. Dafoe and Pattinson, playing these gruff period yokels, are fascinating enough to fixate our attention, but the movie also has its quota of megaplex portents: an obstreperous seagull that may be a living spirit, a glimpse of Neptunian tentacles, the Dafoe character’s nearly mystical attitude toward the lighthouse booth itself, with its luminous rotating beacon of glass. What, exactly, is up there? And what’s going down, really, between the two men? Are we seeing a slice of survival, a horror film, or a study in slow-brewing mutual insanity? How about all of the above?
Both actors are sensational (and they work together like one), but in terms of sheer showboating power it’s Dafoe’s movie. He plays Thomas Wake, the aging “wickie,” as a knowing piece of kitsch — a crusty, bearded, limping old seaman with his pipe held upside-down and a brogue marinated in gin. Yet Dafoe digs so deep into this walking cliché that he transforms him, before our eyes, into an intricate and layered character.
Thomas is supposed to be training Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), a drifter looking to make enough money to settle down, in the art of lighthouse keeping. But Thomas, basically, wants to be obeyed, and he treats Ephraim as his galley slave. He’s a petty tyrant whose previous assistant went crazy, and Dafoe has a ripe blast playing around with his dialogue. Eggers wrote the script with his brother, Max Eggers, basing the film’s eccentric salty-dog literacy on journals from the period, passages out of Melville, and writings by the New England novelist and poet Sarah Orne Jewett. The result is that Dafoe plays Thomas like a yob written by Shakespeare (“God who hear’st the surges roll, deign to save a suppliant soul”). His entire backstory consists of one line of dialogue, which Dafoe turns into a saddened haiku: “Thirteen Christmases at sea. Little ones at home. She never forgave it.” Supernatural or not, the real demon that haunts “The Lighthouse” is the ghost of male loneliness.
As Ephraim, Pattinson gives an intensely physical performance, lugging around barrels of oil and shoveling coal, dangling from a treacherous pulley as he whitewashes the lighthouse’s tall brick exterior (the entire structure was built for the film, though you’d swear it’s an actual lighthouse that’s been around for 150 years). He also masturbates to an ivory mermaid figurine. Pattinson can be a recessive actor, and for a while here, in his droopy mustache, he seems to be playing one more low-key Pattinson drone. But the way “The Lighthouse” works, Willem Dafoe’s performance is a kind of taunt, and Pattinson, on the receiving end of it, rises to the occasion — when he spits out a speech about how sick he is of listening to the old man, it’s the most ferocious acting of Pattinson’s career. (Well, except for the scene where Ephraim takes out his rage on that seagull.) As the movie goes on, his eyes begin to burn in their sockets.
At a certain point, the two men run out of booze and start drinking kerosene, and they descend into a dance of madness. Yet even then, their underlying duel continues. The movie teases us to expect a last-act revelation, and it doesn’t quite arrive as scheduled. “The Lighthouse” never stops toying with our expectations, and that makes it a tough one to call commercially. Can it connect with a mass audience? Maybe not as smoothly as “The Witch” did. Yet the movie, building on “The Witch,” proves that Robert Eggers possesses something more than impeccable genre skill. He has the ability to lock you into the fever of what’s happening onscreen.