Robert Eggers' first feature, 2015's "The Witch" was a horror film steeped in 17th century folklore, so much that it felt like the sort of tale Puritans might tell to scare each other out of straying off the righteous path.
As a filmmaker, Eggers has an attention to detail that creates an immersive quality to his stories, giving off the feeling that we're slowly sinking into his mad world right along with the characters. Even those who don't necessarily enjoy his films would be hard-pressed to say they aren't, at the very least, triumphs of mood and atmosphere.
The bonkers, bleak, and darkly humorous fable "The Lighthouse," is his latest; a black-and-white fever dream that follows two lighthouse keepers, played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, on their slow descent into madness on a remote island outpost.
The film begins as Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) arrives on that mysterious island in what appears to be New England sometime in the 1890s, though the film never specifies. He's there for a four-week stint, hoping to earn some fast money working under crusty old sea dog Thomas Wake (Dafoe, doing his best impression of the Sea Captain from "The Simpsons"), the coarse and flatulent senior wickie, or lighthouse keeper.
While Winslow takes on the back-breaking manual labor, Wake takes the less physically intensive night shift (though always holding off sleep long enough to bark his critiques of Winslow's work). He sleeps through the day to keep the light at night, manning the beacon for any passing ships. Wake never allows Winslow to see what lies at the top of the tower, holding tight the key that allows him access to the room and the secrets it contains.
During their rare downtime, Wake regales Thomas with meandering tales of sea monsters, mermaids, and the occasional sea shanty. They drink horrific looking concoctions made of what appears to be honey and kerosene to stave off the doldrums. "Boredom makes men to villains," Wake warns darkly.
We eventually learn that his last assistant died, shortly after he went stark-raving mad. And seeing the isolation the men endure, alone on a barren pile of rocks, with nothing but salt water and fog surrounding them, it's not hard to see why. Soon Winslow begins having increasingly sexual visions of a mermaid washing up on shore, and signs of a supernatural world lying just off the edges of the story's map.
The two men bicker and snipe at one another incessantly, and tempers flare with only the disconcertingly intrusive seagulls for company on their desolate pile of rocks. But as much of a nuisance as the birds can be, Wake insists that it's bad luck to kill one, claiming they carry within them the souls of sailors who've died at sea.
Paranoia and madness burble up slowly in the men, then with an unstoppable force as it mixes with their deeply embedded rage and guilt. As they lose their already tenuous grip of reality, the film dips into the surreal -- appropriate for a story that's shot through with moments of mythic grandeur and Lovecraftian horror.
As miserable as these two men are, watching them is always a delight. The script -- written by Eggers and his brother, Max -- gives Pattinson and Dafoe two indelible characters to dig into, and both actors deliver exquisite performances.
Eggers' meticulous filmmaking craft is always on display. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoots on 35mm, using mostly natural light. The stark black-and-white photography captures every textured detail, tossing us down into the gloom and the muck. The expressionist shadows add to the silent film theatricality of the story, and the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio emphasizes a sense of claustrophobia. You can practically feel the salty sea air and the dank, noxious smell of booze and stale old farts inside the whitewashed walls of the lighthouse.
There's also the impeccable sound design. The roaring winds and waves, incessant foghorns and sharp screeches of gulls in the distance. Layered above it all is the unnervingly discordant score from Mark Korven, cultivating an air of intense unease.
"The Lighthouse" sits comfortably within the recent trend of films that plumb the psyches of men, and drudge up all manner of insanity. Lonely and horny, Winslow and Wake alternate between seemingly wanting to tear each other to shreds, kiss, or violently screw. In its way, "The Lighthouse" is its own sort of love story.
Just what exactly it all means is never made explicitly clear. Its deeply strange and mesmerizing mania doesn't make "The Lighthouse" the most commercial or broadly appealing time at the movies. I can see the film driving many audience members as batty as its characters, but just as many (myself included) will undoubtedly fall under its hypnotic spell.