The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson (and a very nasty seagull) in a gothic thriller set off the coast of Maine in 1890, and it’s terrific. Mad, but terrific. It is gripping, intense, extraordinarily written — someone is accused of smelling like ‘curdled foreskin’ at one point — and is about two fellas thrown together. But unlike most odd-couple scenarios there is no bonding. So get bonding right out of your mind. Instead, they drive each other full-on (and marvellously) insane. It’s a mad film about madness, in short.
It is directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch) and co-written with his brother, Max Eggers, which makes you wonder what they played growing up: let’s play being driven insane on a bleak rock? (Or: let’s play who can most smell of curdled foreskin today?) And it’s startling right from the off. Visually, it’s startling as it’s shot in starkly beautiful black and white, and aurally it is startling too. Foghorns rumble, the wind howls, birds screech, water plinks into a pail, chains clank. It’s not the kind of film where you can ever kick back and relax. (Also, waves crash, rain lashes, clockwork mechanisms groan, clocks tick….)
It opens with the two men, Thomas (Dafoe) and Ephraim (Pattinson), arriving to work a month-long shift at a lighthouse on that bleak rock. Dafoe has never knowingly played anyone who wasn’t creepy and disturbing and his Thomas is feral, bearded and rotten-toothed, a drunk and a farter, and has a bad leg so it’s walk-drag, walk-drag, walk-drag wherever he goes. He wants Ephraim within his power and bullies him. He makes Ephraim do all the drudge work (scrubbing floors, emptying chamber pots, hauling coal) and farts in his face and does not allow him to attend to the light atop the tower because ‘the light is mine’. Ephraim is, initially, long-suffering and obliging if not happily so. You can sense his rage building. Pattinson, who made his name in the teen Twilight films, is sensational and brilliantly convincing and was I surprised by that? I was. (Sorry, Bob.) But eventually Ephraim does boil over. Oh yes.
It is certainly overwrought. There are mermaid fantasies and there’s a homoerotic slow dance (the two are so lonely they also need each other) and there’s the nasty seagull and what one might reasonably refer to as Chekhov’s axe. Ultimately, it becomes a fully fledged phantasmagoria as you wonder what’s real and what isn’t and whether that is important. In this instance, not really, as the film is always intriguing and tense and you become invested in both characters. What does Thomas want from Ephraim? Why won’t he let Ephraim see ‘the light’? What is Ephraim doing here? What is he running from? As for the writing, it’s so dazzling it may well blow your mind. Ephraim has scrubbed the kitchen floor but Thomas insists he must do it again. ‘Tis begrimed and bedabbled,’ he complains. And when Ephraim finally loses it with Thomas — and his ‘goddamn farts!’ — he tells him that not only does he smell like curdled foreskin, but also ‘like hot onions fucked a farmyard shit-house’. It’s the kind of language that roots you to the spot, and it’s terrific, much like everything else.