You trudge up a rickety staircase, luggage in hand, ready to settle down into your new living space. You enter the damp room and notice your roommate has made himself welcome. He’s off in the corner, urinating into a metal bucket. He clears the phlegm in his throat and farts.
This scene opens The Lighthouse (2019), Robert Eggers’ new film about the horrors of male power struggles, intergenerational conflict, flatulence and, well, roommates.
The roommates are Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Both men are wickies—lighthouse keepers—who must man an island tower isolated off the New England coast.
Winslow is our strapping young protagonist. Graced with a thick moustache and chiseled physique, Winslow performs all the tedious daily tasks. He lugs heavy kerosene containers, dumps out chamber pots, repaints the tower exterior, refuels the lighthouse, and tries his best to ignore Wake’s provoking ways.
Wake is our flatulent fellow, far older, and grizzly bearded like the god Neptune. He assumes top-dog status and spends his days alone in the top of the tower, naked and getting a little too intimate with the light.
At first, the two wickies are distant, convening only for nighttime meals in awkward silence. Wake cooks lobster for them both and drinks until he can no longer stand. Winslow isn’t a drinker, but that soon changes.
Eggers frames these suppertime shots to stress each character’s shadows, symbolizing the dark secrets they hide. As the days bleed into each other, and the rum bottles flow, the duo interacts more, and those secrets bubble to the surface. We see a mermaid reappear in Winslow’s dreams, at first seductive, then uncanny. We also see glimpses of a man Winslow desperately wants to keep in his past. Soon, these rising secrets spill over, and the film takes an even darker turn into something you’ve never seen before.
The suppers become rowdier and the quarrels more vicious. Their rum-fueled nights oscillate between orgiastic highs and melancholic lows, seadog tirades and screaming gibberish. One moment, they’re prancing dosey doe. Next thing they’re swaying in a homoerotic hug. Eggers finely tunes these dramatic tonal shifts to uncomfortable and comedic effects. You don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or grit your teeth.
The power of these scenes comes from masterful actor performances. Pattinson reaches a career-best in his role. Dafoe compels us with thunderous rants and distinct wide-eyed stares. His wickie slang is pitch-perfect to nineteenth century New England, salty like the nearby sea. Dafoe’s absence from the Academy Awards is, as Wake would say, treble shameful.
Alongside the performances, Eggers weaves in a drowning, ominous score of heavy bass and blaring horns. With cues from The Shining, the score injects staccato violins to amplify the film’s climactic moments. Eggers also emphasizes diegetic sounds: thunderous rain on the rooftop, crashing waves against the docks, squawking seabirds in the distance, whipping winds, and the unmistakable moans of the foghorn. All this creates an immersive soundscape, drawing us deeper into the story’s clutches. Even in its silent moments, drips of water leak from the ceiling, unnerving us like the ticks of a clock.
Meanwhile, black-and-white cinematography and rustic 1910 camera lenses imbue an authenticity to the story, like we’re watching dug up footage from long ago on this island. Eggers also frames the film in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, nearly a box screen, where black side bars blend into the scenes’ edges. It blurs our periphery so the characters—and us—feel the walls closing in. We’re trapped in our subconscious, forced to confront the Freudian nightmares that lurk within.
In a film laden with octopus sex, menacing mermaids, and one-eyed seagulls, there is a strange timeliness to this film. Themes of power struggles and intergenerational clashes persist, as well as the consequences of hyper masculinity. It’s about how blind pursuit of fantasy, the lost object as Freud would say, produces our physical and emotional downfall. When our strive for power overtakes rational compassion, any advantage soon becomes a disadvantage.
The Lighthouse is among the strangest films you’ll ever seen. It’s inventive filmmaking on steroids and Eggers tells an original story—one that eloquently balances absurdist visuals with raw acting and haunting soundscapes with farts.