A film not so much steeped in baroque style as positively marinated in it, Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse – playing in Directors’ Fortnight – emerged on Sunday morning as the most exciting and individual film so far in the entire festival. Expectations were high for a two-hander starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, and directed by the man whose eerie historical chiller The Witch (2015) was one of the most inventive US debuts in recent years.
Director Robert Eggers
Ephraim Robert Pattinson
Tom Willem Dafoe
Black and white
[1.37 : 1]
If The Witch channeled the haunted literary universe of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s New England, The Lighthouse goes into Herman Melville territory – quite literally, as much of the dialogue is taken from sources including his writing and the journals of 19th-century lighthouse keepers. But it’s Melvillean in other ways. There’s a bravura moment where Dafoe’s character, shot from below and lit to look absolutely demonic, delivers a torrential maritime curse, wishing all the demons of the deep upon the Pattinson character’s head – and suddenly, you can absolutely see what a full-blown Orson Welles Moby Dick would have been like.
Shot in a ratio that’s close to Academy, but looking a little bit squarer, the film is in black and white, filmed by The Witch’s DP Jarin Blaschke in richly textured shades of ink, coal and chalk, with shades of Gustave Doré’s etchings of The Ancient Mariner. The 19th-century tale begins with a ship on a slate-grey sea, and is entirely set on a remote island somewhere off the North American coast, where a new recruit (Pattinson) is joining a grizzled lighthouse keeper (Dafoe) as his second on a four-week stint.
From the start of the film, Dafoe’s character – named late in the film, but let’s call him Tom – proves an overbearing martinet, sending the younger man, Ephraim, on a wearing round of tasks, and the tension between them inexorably rises. Ephraim suffers the rigours of the island – hauling coals on muddy paths, keeping the rankness of the cistern at bay, tangling with the most hostile seagulls this side of Bodega Bay. But he never gets to experience the post’s glory, the thrill of tending the lantern itself – a job that Tom keeps for himself, seeming to experience a bizarre sexual or quasi-religious pleasure from it.
This island gig is clearly the most psychologically risky retreat since Jack Torrance signed on at the Overlook Hotel, but the interplay between the two men plays out teasingly, with an Oedipal tension between tyro and patriarch that plays out at times like a maritime, rum-soaked version of Steptoe and Son. Both actors are superb – Pattinson giving his most anxious, intense and physical performance to date, while a leathery-faced, Triton-bearded Dafoe milks the clichés of his old-salt character, giving it a knowing amount of arr-Jim-lad and a great deal of malign but vulnerable pathos.
Arguably overstretched (at 1 hour 50 minutes) and a little repetitive, the film takes us exactly into the spiral of madness and disaster that we’re expecting from the start, and throws on its dream imagery in crashing waves (mermaids, dead from the deep, tentacular flailings of the H.P. Lovecraft variety). But what keeps this nightmare vessel afloat, along with the performances, is the film’s phenomenally inventive style. It’s to be found not just in the camerawork (a magnificently ominous vertical crane up the dark interior of the lighthouse itself) and in Craig Lathrop’s richly detailed design, but in the sound too, Mark Korven’s music (was that the creak of a bass harmonica?) meshing wonderfully with Damian Volpe’s sound design, full of the threatening clank of machinery and the deathly boom of the island’s foghorn.
The period language is richly evocative, too – “Find some chirk in ye lad. Now’s the time for dab and chatter” – and just made to be delivered as if through a mouthful of chewing tobacco. There’s more chirk in The Lighthouse than in any other Cannes title so far: expect plenty of dab and chatter around this one.