By Glenn Heath Jr.
“The Lighthouse” looks like a lost film that’s just been recently discovered after years of being submerged underwater. The grainy, blustery black-and-white imagery has a weathered quality made all the more foreboding being presented in Academy ratio, the big screen equivalent of a prison cell.
Two ornery barnacles stand slumped over at the center of writer/director Robert Eggers’ psychologically demented period piece about two lighthouse keepers who slowly go insane. Drunken veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) has the limp and wiry beard to back up his years of coastal service, while new recruit Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) doesn’t look like he’s ever felt the sting of whipping, briny wind.
Much of the film’s intriguing first act examines the laborious and backbreaking work Ephraim must endure while Thomas locks himself in the lantern room, becoming hypnotized by the constant luminescence. Eggers camera initially fixates on the mechanisms and textures of 19th century hard labor, crawling along with the mud-soaked characters in order maximize the rigor of it all.
Similar to Eggers’ previous film “The Witch,” there’s a menacing rhythm to early sequences of everyday life, which are punctuated by creaking floorboards and deafening blasts of the lighthouse foghorn. Ephraim tries to avoid Thomas’ attempts at nightly fireside chats over stiff liqueur, but eventually awkwardly slimy conversations prove more appealing than pure boredom.
At this point, “The Lighthouse” becomes something of a tonal and narrative mess. It relishes in the waterlogged, horrific imagery of highfalutin dream sequences that help signify a deeper descent into madness. Having been trapped together by the elements (and each other’s farts) for too long, the posturing seamen start to lose all sense of time and direction.
Pattison and Dafoe provide moments of unhinged chemistry, like when Ephraim finally unloads on Thomas in a fury of frustration about the terrible living conditions and gobs of bodily fluids he’s had to endure. Yet, it’s Eggers’ film that feels self-satisfying to a fault.