You can almost taste the salt on your lips in the new psychological horror from Robert Eggers (‘The Witch’) that will leave even the sturdiest of sea legs shaking. It’s a two-handed chamber piece about a pair of lighthouse keepers living on a remote island off the New England coast at the turn of the 20th century and it’s lit up by mesmerising performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.
Dafoe is Tom Wake, an old sea dog with a clay pipe jutting from his thick beard and the chief ‘wickie’ of the lighthouse. He’s an amalgam of salty clichés (which the script wittily acknowledges, including his peg-leg), and loves gin, sea shanties, and cooking lobster. Pattinson plays ex-logger Ephraim Winslow, recently arrived from Canada. He’s the strong and silent type who seems to have a skeleton or two in his closet.
Both are men’s men – the quarrelsome, petty, tobacco-chomping variety. Dafoe and Pattinson deliver Max and Robert Eggers’ script with incredible pathos, sounding like characters who have slipped from the pages of Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’. The dialogue is packed with the sort of insults worthy of Malcolm Tucker, and they lash like a hailstorm.
Dafoe has a long-established reputation but, for many, Pattinson remains that guy from ‘Twilight’, despite sterling work with the likes of David Cronenberg, James Gray and Claire Denis. Those films showcased his talents, but Eggers draws something new from the actor. Pattinson’s performance will make you sit up in your seat.
Meanwhile, life on the island isn’t going well. Wake barks orders constantly, putting down Winslow at every opportunity. To find relief, Winslow heads to the outside store-shed, a small sculpture of a buxom mermaid in one hand, and in the other… well, you get the picture. Soon things start to take a bizarre turn, as Wake insists on taking the nightly ‘dread watch’ and becomes tetchy when Winslow asks to see the lighthouse’s lamp. What comes next, set to a mind-spinning score and sound design from Mark Korven, almost defies belief.
The desolate, lonely environment of the island is captured beautifully in squid-ink blacks and storm-cloud greys, all shot in a boxy 4:3 ratio. There’s a vintage horror feel, both embracing conventions of the genre and defying them. Sometimes you’ll wonder if you’re watching a horror film at all. ‘The Lighthouse’ leaves you dazed, terrified and elated, and it signals Eggers as one of the most exciting directors working today.