I will always be a sucker for stories set in extreme isolation. These go hand-in-hand with sci-fi (“Alien,” “Moon,” “The Martian,” etc.), which probably explains a lot about my love for that genre.
But the titanic scope and unknowability of space makes that setting inherent with nearly all sci-fi or other out-of-this-world fiction. When the isolation is set on the planet we live on, it can create a much more palpable effect on the audience.
We can pretend we know how we’d react in the shoes of a fictional character in a fictional world; but when it could be us, when it’s set in New England and not Tatooine, our relationship with the story can hit closer to home.
Released in theaters Oct. 18 from A24, “The Lighthouse” — directed and co-written by Robert Eggers (“The Witch”) — is a gritty, grimy, perverse and unapologetically confusing story. It’s shot in black-and-white, and the stylization makes it passable as a film made in the 1950s. The story centers on two lighthouse keepers (or, “wickies”), played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who are essentially trying to keep their own sanity and their tolerance for each other.
The isolation is real. There are three actors listed on the movie’s IMDb page; the two aforementioned actors and Valeriia Karaman, who plays a mermaid that only screeches. The fourth leading part in “The Lighthouse” is a one-eyed seagull (that also only screeches).
It’s difficult to say after one viewing whether the plot matters a lot or a little — whether the actions within the story are trying to illustrate something grander or metaphorical, or whether they are merely the internalization of madness manifesting itself in supernatural delusions.
“The Lighthouse” begins with Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) coming to the shore of this mysterious New England island to work under the direction of Thomas Wake (Dafoe).
The beginning is an exercise in niceties — when they’re present, and when they’re not — between two strangers submitted to an intimate living situation with each other for four weeks.
“Bad luck to leave a toast unfinished!” Wake says to Winslow on their first night after Winslow refuses the alcoholic beverage offered.
These two — Wake, the answer to the question of what an 1890s sailor would look and sound like; Winslow, the young, handsome and insubordinate drifter with a shady background — spend much of the first act sniffing each other out in the same way I feel like audiences will simultaneously be sniffing out the film they’re watching.
We see the psychological thriller of this story come to life early on, as Winslow’s hallucinations, delusions and dreams start to reveal themselves. The confusion for the audience sets in, as it becomes clearer that our narrator may be unreliable.
The inciting incident to end the first act, and eliminate any politeness between these two men, is the showdown between Winslow and the one-eyed seagull. “BAD LUCK TO KILL A SEABIRD!” Wake shouts, saying the souls of sailors are in the ’gulls. It’s a brilliant way to set in motion the unraveling of the two, and see the juxtaposition between the old and the young who must coexist.
This is Dafoe and Pattinson giving their best, and it’s a thrill to watch these two spar like heavyweights in the ring. Pattinson’s New England accent sometimes veers into Mayor Quimby of “The Simpsons” territory, but otherwise it’s another stellar and unassuming role in his post-“Twilight” years. Dafoe goes all in here, embracing the madness of his character from the first time he’s on screen until his last, and it’s often in his face and unspoken actions more than his lines.
There’s not a lot of plot, but there is a lot of jarring disorder. Much of the events of the film — and the last 20 minutes, in particular — are left open to interpretation. The delusions of cabin fever coming to life are visually addictive even if they ultimately aren’t sending a grand message to the audience. (Maybe they are, but it will take multiple viewings to figure them out.)
The plotting isn’t what makes “The Lighthouse” worth going to see; it’s Pattinson and Dafoe, and the interactions and swinging power dynamics between their two characters. They start with seemingly incompatible personalities, bound to never see eye to eye, and by the end, Winslow’s actions and the audience’s insight into his mental state turns him into Wake’s younger self.
It’s a movie that depends on its two performances, and Pattinson and Dafoe deliver. Even if, like me, you’re left dissecting both the finer and broader points and looking for meaning only to come up short, it’s still unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. And if nothing else, that’s worth spending two hours exploring.
Warner Strausbaugh is a Colorado Springs resident and page designer for Pikes Peak Newspapers. Contact him with questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.