Cannes 2019: The Lighthouse, by Luiz Oliveira
Not since the Overlook hotel appeared on screen has any piece of remote real estate been so ominous and obviously dangerous as the simple, weather-beaten lighthouse on the coast of Maine that sits atop a cragged landscape in Robert Eggers’ new film. When Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) arrive, inside a thick cloud of fog, nobody’s around. With a four-week stint to go, the duo, typical of movie scripts and plotlines, are in for a perfect storm of existential dread.
Thomas is the old, experienced, sea-hand. A sailor for life, he has been grounded by a leg injury but remains loyal to the sea, looking for work as close as possible to it, always. As for a backstory, a single line is enough: “Thirteen Christmases at sea and little ones at home. She never forgave me.” Ephraim is the new kid, on his first stint as a wickie (lighthouse keeper) with his manual memorized and the best of intentions, willing to work hard and earn enough money to one day retire to the countryside. As evident as the duo’s archetypes is the unspoken notion that each one has his own share of secrets to keep hidden.
It’s well-known that the director scored a runaway indie hit with The Witch and to the joy of film enthusiasts everywhere, he has taken this well-earned and respected cache to construct a work that’s far more oblique and inaccessible than what has come before. This is a film-nerd horror movie more interested in silent movies and poetry than in slasher thrills. As was the case in The Witch, The Lighthouse deals with characters stuck in an isolated location, speaking a heightened language, at the mercy of a supernatural force that generates paranoia and violence. On the other hand, its black-and-white photography, formalism and attention to period detail will alienate much of the audience necessary to make it a commercial hit.
It’s essentially a two-character chamber piece and never have Dafoe and Pattinson been in better form, both physically and emotionally. Dafoe, in particular, still able to give a surprising performance after such a long career, disappears into the role as much as one can imagine Willem Dafoe disappearing into anything. Pattinson trusts his director completely, and channels There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, if one can believe it. Some of the things well-meaning Ephraim has to put up with during the film’s long running time will long remain in most peoples’ memories. At almost two hours, it could definitely use a trim, especially as sequences in the latter half become repetitive, wearing out some goodwill.
Both of these men are, in the end, trapped, at times loving and hating each other, at times united and at odds in fighting whatever it is they’re up against, including a terrifying mermaid, an aggressive seagull (which clearly reckons back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), and their own past traumas and guilt. The main source of tension between them is the old tar’s constant subjugation of the novice’s duties, relegating him to lowly chores and forbidding him from ever seeing the lighthouse’s flame. Whatever it is that Dafoe’s Thomas does up there every night is sure to be full of mischief, even though the film likes to keep it ambiguous and shows us a final take of punishment that can only be described as mythological.