Cannes has finally gifted us a five-star film! After his stunning debut The VVitch, Robert Eggers brings us The Lighthouse, a beacon of light in a pretty dim festival thus far. But what a dark and crazy beacon it is.
While his first film was a spooky supernatural tale set on a seventeenth-century New England farm, Eggers’ second outing shifts the action to nineteenth-century Maine. There are parallels between the two films, most notably the director’s painstaking approach to authenticity. His two leads, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, are given two very different accents, their lines peppered with specific language both of their period and their place. And what dazzling performances from the two leading men: Dafoe’s is a tour de force performance and Robert Pattinson shows that he is as deft at acting as he is at picking out interesting and unusual projects. Dafoe is at his peak and Pattinson just keeps getting better.
Dafoe is the lighthouse keeper Tom Wake and Pattinson is his rookie assistant Ephraim Winslow. Wake is such a cliché of an old tar, dragging his peg leg around while puffing on a pipe and regaling Winslow with endless tales of his sea-faring days. Winslow is new to the sea, coming from the forests of the north and a different kind of melancholic loneliness. Wake is a bossy boss, shouting orders while harrumphing around the island, and is exceedingly jealous of his lantern, banning Winslow from entering his lofty luminous realm. Is there something magical up there? Is there madness in the air?
Eggers has us questioning the sanity of both men as their relationship unravels and tangles, the pair of them weaving a very messy web. As the film progresses, Wake becomes increasingly irrational and authoritarian while Winslow is a beast of burden sorely put to the test. Time becomes skewed and both the characters and the audience have no clear idea how long their isolation has lasted.
The spookiness here comes courtesy of the black and white 35mm negative film shot stunningly by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. Blaschke is aided by the bleak setting, the northern Nova Scotia black volcanic rock creating a dramatic jagged black backdrop. Endless white skies and the vast expanse of grey churning ocean surround these men on their miserable home. The black and white film adds a noir-ish effect, with slanting shadows, skewed angles and gloomy recesses, while the films of Hitchcock also come to mind, most obviously Jamaica Inn. The square format enhances the sense of containment.
The screenplay, written by the director and his brother Max, is a thing of beauty. The language is densely packed not just with nineteenth-century terms but with the form of a novel from that period. These lengthy sentences are spewed out with relish, particularly by Dafoe, whose verbose Wake gets the bulk of the lines. And a lot of those lines are hilarious, for this is an incredibly funny film for all that it sets itself up as a horror. There is the farting and the head bumping, the dancing (one of my favourite moments) and the shit throwing. It is a film about two men living in close proximity and the evolution of their relationship in this confined state. It is also about the kind of man that seeks such a remote post and the audience is slowly given an idea of what these men are running from.
This is a fantastic – and occasionally fantastical – tale. You can imagine it being told by a grandfather to his grandchildren on a dark and stormy night and it fits well with the popular Victorian ghost stories told on Christmas Eve. It’s a welcome addition to that tradition and is a superlative piece of filmmaking on every level.