On a small scrap of an island off an unspecified coast in North America, lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his new assistant Ephriam Winslow (Robert Pattinson) begin their month protecting boats from the rocky dangers under the swelling seas. Dafoe’s gruff ex-sailor establishes his position of superiority from the beginning, assigning the gruelling tasks of repairing and maintaining the run-down house to Pattinson’s Winslow.
As the two men battle harsh winds and constant rain, the claustrophobic existence and the old lore and myths of the sea begin to take hold of both men’s sanity, and the siren call of the lighthouse can no longer be resisted.
The two leads throw themselves into their respective roles. Dafoe’s performance as a man used to the cold isolation of the sea is both mysterious and terrifying; he swings from one mood to the next, spitting out curses and insults in poetic, era-appropriate language. As Winslow, Pattinson’s performance is, at first, more understated and physical before the madness of the sea begins to change his perceptions of both reality and the confined space that he is living in.
The Lighthouse is steeped in a sense of time and place; Eggers stated in the Q+A following the screening that he and his co-writer Max Eggers studied both the works of Herman Melville and dialect tapes of the time. The lyrical language – at time harsh and unforgiving – lends itself to the mysticism that surrounds so much of the Western imagination of the sea.
As a horror film – shot in striking black and white 35mm – it blends both psychological and supernatural madness as the camera lingers in empty rooms and just out of sight, on the verge of capturing the unspoken horror that lurks there. The anticipation is one built on the quiet moments that build gently in their disintegration (occasionally causing the film to drag slightly at points). But patience is certainly paid off as the chaos that has been brewing is unleashed upon the inhabitants of the lighthouse.
The Lighthouse is a swirling, mystical nightmare of a horror that is dense with both meaning and an unnerving sense of the fragility of the mind when confronted with the unknown.
by Rose Dymock