Recently, I followed the Twitter account @MobyDickatSea. The profile’s function is simple: to tweet out passages from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” once every two hours and indicate their location in the story. I haven’t read the novel in years, and I can’t honestly say that it stuck with me in a profoundly memorable way. But I find this account fascinating for its context in the general mess of Twitter (that is to say, its lack of context with anything else in my timeline). I found a similarly passive appreciation for Robert Eggers’s (“The Witch”) “The Lighthouse” for its zany boldness.
There might be a reason that the grimy sailors-caught-out-at-sea myths appeal so strongly to me now, but I refuse to pinpoint it. Regardless, “The Lighthouse” is certainly one of the most compelling horror movies of the year, one that will be rewatched time and time again by those who dare to embrace its madness. Above all, the film hones in on what makes the 2010s a particularly special decade for the horror genre.
The film does not stray far from Melvillian territory, playing out like a series of hallucinatory vignettes from two newly stationed lighthouse keepers on a remote island in the 19th century. Thomas Wake, the older, gruffer and scruffier of the two is played by Willem Dafoe (“Vox Lux”) in one of the most fleshed-out performances of his career. He is rageful and briny and barking, but he is quippy too, in a guffawing grandfatherly way. Dafoe’s impending snub for a Best Actor nomination will be lamented by horror fans in the likes of Toni Collete in “Hereditary” and Essie Davis in “The Babadook”.
His companion on the island is Robert Pattinson’s (“High Life”) Ephraim Winslow, a mustached, squeaky-voiced Canadian with an alcohol addiction and a general disdain for working life. The two actors are the only speaking characters in the entire movie, but have electric chemistry that keeps “The Lighthouse” from dragging for even a moment.
As equally important to the experience as the pair’s performance is the way the film is shot. Eggers constrains his camera with a squarish 1.19:1 aspect ratio as well as a black-and-white lens. The result is obviously claustrophobic and indicative of the time period, but it also has an important effect on how the director chooses to compose each frame. Most notably, Eggers employs two-shots sparingly — whenever we see our main characters, they are typically alone. They are often facing the camera directly, resembling Jonathan Demme’s uncomfortable POV close-ups in “The Silence of the Lambs.” The deteriorating sense of personal space, exacerbated by low ceilings and ominous lighting on builds into the film’s conclusion, leaving a viewer squeamish and discomfited.
Moreover, when both characters appear in the same frame, they appear pressed against each other, poised for conflict but intimate and, occasionally, romantic. Winslow and Wake are deeply repressed — they ache for any escape from the dry monotony of the island, and their drunken nightly musings dance beautifully on the line between revelation and foolspeak.
In many ways, “The Lighthouse” is a testament to the foothold that horror has on the film industry in 2019. To think that a film so utterly deranged could be funded, produced and even limitedly released in another decade is unfathomable. But “The Lighthouse” understands what makes the horror of today successful: an arthouse director that infuses intellect behind every scare, a perfectly assembled cast performing at the top of its potential, commentary that transforms the very real into the very personal and a level of technical craft that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate.
Robert Eggers is likely one of the savviest young voices in horror. It’s easy to say that he played the same cards with “The Lighthouse” as he did with his debut feature in 2015, “The Witch.” After all, they are both period-horror with limited settings, a naturalistic tone and measured pacing. But beyond the surface, they couldn’t be more different. Where “The Witch” devotes an intense focus to its broad ideas of feminism, colonialism and Puritanism, “The Lighthouse” is not so clear about its message, preferring to pull its viewers subjectively along into the madness. If anything, this pairing illustrates Eggers’s range as a filmmaker. He isn’t bound to the coherency of his narratives; he is more attentive to the gnawing, gnarling, all-consuming experience of horror itself.