The Lighthouse, review: ‘A film that will make your head and soul ring’

Robbie Collin
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe give extraordinary performances - A24

Dir: Robert Eggers;

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe.

“We had faces!” Norma Desmond spat in Sunset Boulevard, pining for cinema’s awestruck, hero-worshipping past. The Lighthouse proves we still do. The ferociously entertaining new film from Robert Eggers, director of The Witch, fixates on two of the best in the business, and they belong to Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Pattinson’s, with its stern lines and art deco crags, is like a Soviet statue; while Dafoe’s, two glinting eyes and a knot of teeth hedged in by untamed beard, calls to mind a monster crouching in a bush.

They are the star attractions in this storm-battered maritime horror, set on a remote lighthouse station in the 1890s and shot in severe black and white, with the screen constrained to a portrait-tight Movietone aspect ratio of which Ms Desmond would have approved. You would struggle to describe either man as conventionally handsome here – even before the wind, brine, seagulls, blunt force trauma, flying excreta and unspecified Lovecraftian sludge take their toll. But both have a kind of sublime ugliness that is wholly in keeping with a film that feels less made than hoisted up like treasure from the belly of some rust-bitten shipwreck.

Pattinson plays Ephraim Winslow, the taciturn new apprentice to Dafoe’s lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, who comes across like Captain Haddock crossed with Gollum. As the film begins, both men arrive at their posts through a cloak of fog, braced for a four-week shift. Wake tends the lamp itself, guarding it jealously from his younger colleague, who’s lumbered with the dirty work – scrubbing the cabin, refilling the oil tanks and stoking the boiler while cogs and belts spin around him in a deranging Dziga Vertov whirl. Outside, the crash of waves and caw of gulls is only broken by blasts from the foghorn, echoing over the rocks like the cry of a woebegone T-Rex. 

The place is one star on Trip Advisor at best, which is to say it attracts a certain type of employee – one with good reason to hide themselves away offshore. Both Pattinson and Dafoe have their secrets, and these slowly emerge as a tempest closes in and prolongs their stay indefinitely, while tempers fray, rations moulder, identities crumble, and a small, scrimshaw mermaid Pattinson finds tucked in his mattress exerts an unearthly pull. The Shining-on-Sea? Sort of. But Eggers’s influences predate Kubrick by some distance. German Expressionism, Moby-Dick – even a certain Greek myth is invoked by that mysterious beacon and its fire-of-the-gods vibe.

The dense screenplay, packed with antique nautical jargon, was written by Eggers and his brother Max, and their two actors chomp away on it with zeal. Dafoe, who’s astounding, gives his best monologue while literally chewing the scenery, wadding up clods of soil in his mouth. And Pattinson gives a performance of such audacity and muscle that he recalls Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. That’s no comparison to make lightly, but everything about The Lighthouse lands with a crash. It’s cinema to make your head and soul ring.

The Lighthouse is released in the UK on July 8