The Lighthouse can be enjoyed on dual levels — as a thickly atmospheric exercise in psychological terror, or as a compendium of seafaring legends, jokes and clichés. However you choose to consume it, there’s nothing else remotely like it in the vicinity. Its fussy visuals, arcane references and plodding pace make it a difficult sell for a wide audience, but a delight for in-the-know film buffs. Its very existence is inspirational, an act of courage from A24, the company that bravely bankrolled it.
The sophomore effort of 36-year-old Robert Eggers, writer-director of the 2016 horror film The Witch, The Lighthouse is an equally confident piece of chicanery, though it seems destined to fall short of its predecessor’s popularity if only for the fact that the imagery and lore from which it siphons its creative energy — seagulls, sirens and, of course the title building with its foghorn and beacon light — are more marginal in the cultural imagination. Everyone knows what a witch is, but how many can explain the natural phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire? And no, it has nothing to do with the Brat Pack.
Two lighthouse keepers, or “wickies,” are assigned to a remote island. The older man, Thomas (an impressively bearded Willem Dafoe), is a crusty sea salty fellow fluent in nautical slang. The younger Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) is skeptical of tall tales and wants nothing more than to earn enough money to begin his life afresh. As soon as they arrive, Thomas begins to act suspiciously, spending too much time in the lantern room and guarding the light from his younger colleague like a jealous lover. He informs Ephraim that the previous first mate went mad after becoming obsessed with the bright beam emanating from the lamps. Meanwhile, Ephraim, in a simultaneously horrible and hilarious long take, kills a seagull and keeps the act a secret from his superior.
Apparently, he doesn’t know that it’s very back luck to kill a sea bird. What proceeds isn’t so much a slow descent into madness as a series of sharp, sudden drops into pandemonium, each one more perilous than the last. Trapped by a storm, the two roommates begin to unravel, and Ephraim is visited with visions of a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) which drives him into a state of sexual panic and existential horror.
Though it proceeds at a slow pace appropriate to its subject matter, The Lighthouse is good fun throughout. The film has a wonderful texture and tactility. You can practically feel the cold spray of sea air lashing against the weathered faces of the two leads. Eggers and his cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, shot in black-and-white using archaic film equipment to achieve an authentically antique veneer, and the effect is reminiscent of the poetic horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, or Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide, to cite a slightly more recent example.
Eggers’ deep dedication to sweat, stubble, farts, piss pots and whiskey bottles conjures a credible, early-20th century vibe (the film was shot in Novia Scotia), and you can be sure that the tunes Dafoe hums are historically accurate. Maintaining this fastidious devotion to authentic detail, Eggers draws much of his material from classic literary sources (Herman Melville) and old journals, and the film features what must be the longest and most hilarious insult ever hurled by an ancient mariner. It all comes close to self-parody, but that’s also to the film’s advantage; a rich vein of dry wit keeps it afloat during the occasional longueurs.
Perhaps the most surprising source of inspiration is the fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett, whose novels and short stories set along the crumbling fishing villages of Maine frequently deal with the effects of isolation upon its inhabitants. For Halloween viewing, The Lighthouse is decidedly highbrow.
ArcLight (also playing at the Landmark), 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; Fri. Oct. 11, various showtimes; $16-$18; (323) 615-2550, arclightcinemas.com.