I don't believe I've ever used the word masterpiece when reviewing a film, but when it comes to The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers' stunning new tale of madness and violence told against the sweeping backdrop of some remote and nondescript island off the coast of New England, it fits.
It begins like a dream: Suddenly and without warning, lighthouse keepers Ephraim and Thomas are on a rock in the middle of the sea, tasked with keeping a lighthouse running and utterly, painfully, terrifyingly alone. Thomas (a jaw-droppingly brilliant Willem Dafoe) has been here before, or perhaps he's never left; other partners, he says, were driven to madness. The solitude has crept in for Thomas, as well, leaving him a callous and particular sort of man.
The younger Ephraim (Robert Pattinson, who is so very good let it lay any Twilight jokes to rest), however, is wide-eyed and seemingly innocent, unprepared for the commitment he's made. He's new to the job, the demands of the sea; a man looking for a fresh start who is running from something dark in his past. Whatever their circumstances before now, cabin fever sets in for Thomas and Ephraim. Hallucinations take over and any hope for relief, or maybe escape, is soon lost. The longer they toil, the darker their conditions become.
Like in Eggers' previous works (The VVitch, for example), he proves a master of atmosphere and building tensions. Creeping up from the shadows are any number of self-inflicted horrors made more horrifying as Ephraim's behaviors start to mimic those of Thomas' previous partner, or so we're told. The omnipresent cacophony of the rotating light's machinery drones on in the background and becomes the one thing grounding us to what we believe is reality and sanity. But then, maybe it's not. Maybe it's a low-level form of hypnotism.
The pair becomes intimate during drunken nights and sets out to torture one another during the labor-intensive days. Why is Ephraim there? Why won't Thomas let him tend to the massive bulb at the top of the lighthouse? It's downright Lovecraftian in its building of the unknown; it's downright mythic in its jumps and scares, right down to Dafoe's artfully delivered poetic and threatening rants.
Is it better not to know ? Are we punished for our obsessions? Would we even know if we'd lost our minds? Eggers presents these questions, leaving room for interpretation, but never irritatingly; rather, he brings us to the brink of madness alongside his characters, then sends them hurtling headlong into the abyss. We have no choice but to watch, powerlessly. Answers might not come, but they're not really needed. It's about the journey, and from every conceivable filmmaking angle, it is brilliant and shocking and disturbing to the very core. Shot in crisp and foreboding black and white, The Lighthouse is as powerful as cinema gets, an absolute must for anyone brave enough to come face to face with its madness.
+Sheer art and horror; Dafoe and Pattinson; the script; the cinematography
-You're on your own
Directed by Eggers
With Dafoe and Pattinson
Violet Crown, R, 109 min.