By Andrea Thompson
You’ll never really figure out just what the hell is going on in “The Lighthouse,” but it’s one of the few cases where a lot of confusion isn’t too much of a bad thing. The sole location, an isolated, harsh isle unsettles from the beginning, as the unfortunate Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives to train as a lighthouse keeper under Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe).
Robert Eggers knows a thing or two about locations, having unnerved us by making good use of relatively simple staging (among other things) in “The Witch.” Similarly, as we’re introduced to the harsh landscape of “The Lighthouse,” the boat almost seems to violently slice and fight its way out of the turbulent waters to reach its destination, then vanishing back into fog as it departs. A foghorn echoes as if to call Winslow back. It will echo throughout the film thereafter, becoming the soundtrack to a nightmare that keeps on escalating.
Ephraim and Thomas are an odd couple from the start, with the talkative Thomas crudely peeing and farting in their shared room, insists on forcing the younger, quieter man to talk, and ordering him to perform menial tasks rather than training him to care for the lighthouse itself. It’s humorous at times, then becomes something far darker as Ephraim’s curiosity about just why Thomas guards the light so jealously grows, along with his paranoia and hallucinations involving mermaids. Or are they?
By the end, what’s real is as much an open question as it ever was. Is the harsh land enchanted? Or do these two men share a madness that’s been exacerbated by the difficulties of an unforgiving, isolated environment? The only thing that matters is watching Dafoe and Pattinson orbit each other in their growing insanity as they clash, tear each other down, and occasionally even try to keep each together as they and the film openly acknowledge the cliches they’re indulging. Everything probably would’ve been fine if it was socially acceptable for them to bone. Alas, 19th century gender politics were hard on men too.