The anchor chain wrapped around the prow, the boat cuts through the black water through the fog towards the island off the coast of New England, the lighthouse illuminating the way but offering no comfort as it howls out its deafening warning across the waves, drowning out the cries of the gulls and the endless crash of the turbulent sea.
The boat bringing a change of shift before vanishing back into the mists as though it had never existed, former logger Ephraim Winslow is now become a wickie, a lighthouse keeper, engaged to spend four weeks on the island under the stern eye of Thomas Wake, an uncouth man who jealously guards the lamp room.
Wake warning him that only through drink can men keep their sanity in such conditions of isolation when the superstitious and eccentric old man is far from a reliable source of truth or a shining example of rational thought, with only demanding menial labour to exhaust his body, stoking the boiler and undertaking maintenance on the lighthouse, Winslow’s mind drifts to memories of his life before and nightmares of the water, of mermaids and monsters.
Directed by Robert Eggers from a script co-written with his brother Max Eggers, unlike his previous film The Witch which whittled down the cast as it progressed, The Lighthouse is principally a two hander from the outset, High Life’s Robert Pattinson continuing to distance himself from Twilight as Winslow, hard-working but understandably resentful of the ingratitude of Wake, The Boondock Saints‘ Willem Dafoe a crusty sack of saggy skin and grudges.
The latest in a recent slew of horrors and dramas set on lighthouses or featuring shipwrecked survivors on isolated islands – Cold Skin, The Vanishing, The Isle – it is an examination of the two men and their relationship, adversarial, distrusting and ultimately hostile yet co-dependent, full of half-truths and ambiguity, reaching for an unattainable illumination which eludes them, an abstract Pinter play dashed on the rocks with an audience of hostile seagulls pecking at the scraps.
Filmed in monochrome and 1:19 ratio to evoke 19th century photography, the spiral stairwell of the lighthouse caught within a frame in which it does not fit, the images evoke Lovecraftian monsters of the deep and Greek mythology, Prometheus’ punishment for stealing the fire of the gods, The Lighthouse is perhaps better taken as a series of moments to appreciate rather than attempting to analyse it as a frustrating whole, and running to almost two hours of minimal narrative it is an indulgence which would have been more powerful had it not felt like an endurance test.