So who knew that Edgar Allan Poe and “Man of Aran” early cinema pioneer Robert Flaherty threw a Herman Melville-themed party for Ernest Hemingway which, under the influence of bathtub gin and barometric anomaly (and a late appearance by Samuel Beckett), became so raucous it angered the Greek Gods who visited mythically grotesque punishments on its revelers, gone blind with masculine rage and insane with isolation and bad hooch? Thankfully, director Robert Eggers, of “The Witch” infamy, was on hand to document the proceedings. And so now, like a grizzled old sea-dog in a sou’wester who smells “like a hot onion fucked a farmyard shithouse,” lurching toward us out of the enveloping Cannes fog, comes the utterly fantastic “The Lighthouse,” starring a briny, rotten-toothed Willem Dafoe, a deranged, mustachioed Robert Pattinson and a one-eyed seagull so sinister at any moment we expect it to croak “Nevermore.”
“The Lighthouse” bursts in on us like a shuttered window pulverized by a gale-force gust. At first, it’s just abstract images, “Leviathan“-style, of a ship’s keel, a misty horizon and a sea roiling under “The Witch” composer Mark Corven‘s extraordinary, unsettling foghorn/depth-charge score. The images are in gorgeously antique, high-contrast black and white, and in a boxy aspect ratio that better mimics the cramped verticality of the lighthouse at which the boat briefly docks (one suspects Eggers, and his “The Witch” DP Jarin Blaschke, might actually have been even happier had exhibition formats allowed for a portrait layout, to shove their two characters into even more uncomfortable proximity within the frame).
New apprentice Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson, and what a blessing to cinema this guy is turning out to be, bringing his enormous fanbase to such risky projects) and old hand Thomas Wake (Dafoe) have arrived to take on their four-week stint as the keepers of this remote New England crag. Initially, the quiet, bookish Winslow chafes under the irascible, flatulent Wake’s orders, and responds stiffly to the older man’s liquor-loosened evening anecdotage. Ex-sailor Wake refuses to allow Winslow near the lantern, guarding the uppermost floor of the lighthouse as assiduously as St. Peter does the gates of heaven, while consigning Winslow to the hellish bowels stoking the furnace, swabbing the floors and emptying the overflowing chamber pots. But their mandated shift ends with the pair on thawing terms: on his last night before relief is due, Winslow finally gets drunk with Wake and the men bond.
But instead of the relief boat, there comes a storm. As supplies of everything but booze dwindle (and they resort to some sort of kerosene home-brew when that finally runs dry), the men spend half the time at each other’s throats and the other half in each other’s drunken embrace, sharing confidences that they should not. Each is revealed to be an equally unreliable narrator of his own backstory, and each becomes increasingly wary of the other. “Why did you have to spill the beans, lad?” is Wake’s echoey nightmare refrain, as they phase from companionship to conflict and back again (a moment where they nearly kiss turns instead into a vicious fistfight). Outside, the rain batters at the boarded-up windows while inside, the men poison themselves with alcohol, paranoia and souring, useless testosterone.
Speaking of bean-spilling, one of cinema’s great masturbation scenes ensues with a fearless Pattinson semi-naked in an outhouse furiously rubbing one out to the tiny mermaid figurine left by his predecessor in the wicking of his mattress. He’s brought to climax by an extraordinary montage of weird mental images: mermaid genitalia, giant hentai-style tentacles, and slithery, seaweedy death. Eggers’ full-tilt embrace of erotic desire turned perversely in on itself in the absence of any object is, amid so much that harks back to olden tymes, shockingly, gleefully modern.
It’s also very funny. The humor can be slapstick, but it lives most naturally in the ornamented 19th-century dialogue, which is as lovingly written (by Eggers and his brother Max) as the revived Plymouth-puritan English of “The Witch.” Winslow, imagined by Pattinson to have a plausibly precarious Boston-area accent, doesn’t get loquacious until later on, but when he does, it forces even Wake to concede “You have a way with words, lad.” And that means a lot coming from Wake, whose monologues are like those of an evangelical hellfire preacher turned peg-legged pirate. It almost feels like a reward for their commitment that both brilliant actors get to chew on this baroque sea-shanty argot like it’s a cheroot, and to hock intricate insults and laborious curses at each other like gobs of sickly tobacco-stained phlegm.
Sisyphus and Prometheus, Neptune and Triton, Captains Ahab and Nemo and the Ancient Mariner (of whom Coleridge wrote while almost as off his face as this pair): Eggers’ paradoxically simple but densely allusive film nods to them all. But it is not enslaved to anyone reference point and so becomes entirely its own thing, a genre sui generis: Scrimshaw Gothic. Good films feel timeless, like they will always endure. But great ones feel eternal, like they’ve always been there. With its glorious, weathered monochrome imagery, textured with tar and pitch and soaked in brine, and its witty, silent-movie aesthetic (there’s a moment Pattinson’s eyes go round with horror like he’s Greta Schröder shrinking from the approach of FW Murnau‘s “Nosferatu“) “The Lighthouse” feels ancient, like the cinematic equivalent of a stone carving. And its story is older still, a mythic, folkloric fable about old jealous gods and wrathful nature and flying too close to the sun. And yet, in its reimagining of the hysterical psychodrama as the province not of women, in whose febrile brains such tales have traditionally been located, but of men— and men with impressive, weatherbeaten faces and no-nonsense, capable attitudes at that— it’s shimmeringly contemporary, and has real long-game sustain.
And if the immediate, textural pleasures of the film are such that you can almost miss the deftness of its construction, the skill with which Eggers balances out his ambivalent storytelling, while still ramping through ever-escalating climaxes, can’t be overstated. There’s real artistry in keeping an audience as unsure as we remain: someone is definitely going mad here, but who? Is it us? We are always either in Wake’s point of view, seeing the rankling Winslow as dangerously deranged, or we’re in Winslow’s, suspecting the overbearing Wake has been driven insane by his obsession with the lantern’s lugubrious glare, and there’s no objective viewpoint to let us know what’s actually true. A lesser filmmaker would provide us with a stabilizing glimpse at the horizon every now and then, but Eggers prefers to let us go gently, deliciously mad along with his doomed duo, with the ravenous seagulls wheeling in the sky, the sea beating ceaselessly on the rocks and our timbers shivering in exquisite uncertainty until the last. [A]