Robert Eggers’ sophomore film The Lighthouse is a hysterical horror film with an atmospheric narrative that explores power dynamics, sexual desire, repression, and isolation.
Set in the late 19th century, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) are sent to an island coast in New England to man a lighthouse for four weeks. Winslow and Wake are at odds against each other, brought about by the age gap and power dynamics. Pattinson and Dafoe are a joy to watch; with Pattinson’s enigmatic nature slowly breaking into a burst of rage shining against the black and white frame. Dafoe doesn’t disappoint with his subtle transformation from a disgusting old drunk to a terrifying madman calling upon the gods of the seas to wreak havoc among the land.
Together they are a powerhouse, able to counter each other with such hilarity and terror struggling against the sea and each other; the lighthouse watching over them. Winslow takes note of Wake’s manning and secretive nature atop the lighthouse while Wake demands physically taxing jobs from Winslow further complicating matters between them as the weather turns against them. Wake also has the only access atop the lighthouse. Despite Winslow’s insistence that it is also his part as a wickie to man the lighthouse itself, Wake is adamant about keeping that part to himself, thus causing more hostility between them.
There’s something intimate about this need for control as we watch the conflicting dynamics of our two leads as the sea and the lighthouse itself wreck havoc upon them. As the sea is demanding and brings new horrors with its unknowable depth it brings forth desire and the rage accompanying it. Despite the hostility between Winslow and Wake, there are moments of tenderness when the alcohol hits, putting down guarded walls the two men keep. Winslow’s confusion over these moments only heightens his repression likening these desires to madness and exorcising such vivid fantasies to mermaids.
None of these changes the power dynamics but only aggravates it. As the truth starts pouring out, the film takes a darker turn, so does reality and maybe that’s the real horror of it. Who do we believe in the madness of it all? Winslow’s impulse telling us to rage against it all or Wake’s selfish truths? As the barriers start to break between them Winslow’s rage subverts the power dynamics only to end up in a tragedy himself.
Shot on 35mm film and with Jarin Blaschke’s gorgeous cinematography, the film creates a tense narrow feeling of suffocation from the get-go coupled with the overwhelming foghorn noises that can be disarming at times, heightening the mysticism of the film. Despite its impressive technical aspects and outstanding leads, its narrative leaves much to be desired. What do we expect of two lonely men with their burdened desires only to be foiled by severed wages and labor exploitation?
The Lighthouse is a ride, full of nautical nonsense and yet, oddly compelling in its execution of it. One thing’s for sure though is that in this constant grapple for control and desire does madness start to seep through and humanity loses itself to transform into creatures of their utter peril.