The job of lighthouse keeper, from the long-ago days when the lights needed to be manned, has a pure and simple grandeur. The keeper had his list of daily duties — mundane, monotonous and lonely, yet essential for the survival of ships at sea. “The Lighthouse” (2019) – now on Amazon Prime — taps into some of the job’s reality, but it’s mostly a grim mood piece chronicling Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim being driven crazy by Willem Dafoe’s farting Thomas in the 1890s at an offshore New England lighthouse.
Writer-director Robert Eggers (“The VVitch”), with an assist from co-writer Max Eggers, wallows in the madness any normal person would descend into when they find out their boss on this four-week gig not only farts regularly and unapologetically but also is a stern taskmaster. Thomas rewards hard work with write-ups in his logbook about how Ephraim is not good enough – while himself breaking rules such as the no-drinking policy.
A horror film for categorization purposes only, “The Lighthouse” is all about sights and sounds signifying Ephraim’s frustrations, shot in black-and-white in the claustrophobic 4:3 ratio of old “square” TVs. At least on this island, lighthouse keeper is not a peaceful job, and whatever the beacon of light symbolizes, it’s certainly not hope.
This isn’t a story of light cutting through the dark, but rather about noise cutting through calm. A foghorn regularly blares an aural warning to ships, yet the sea is so angry that we know there are no ships braving it. Lighthouse keeper was an honest-to-god U.S. government job, but it bears a remarkable resemblance to modern black-site torture strategies.
The performances are excellent, particularly Dafoe, who gets the bulk of the dialog. I felt trapped with the two actors, as if I had the only seat in a black box theater and was determined to soak up their performances and not think about the people they’re playing.
As with “The VVitch,” my favorite film of 2016, “The Lighthouse” meticulously captures the speaking style of the time and region – so much so that even Ephraim recognizes his contemporary is a “parody.” Thomas finishes sentences with “says I,” and while Ephraim’s angry description of Thomas’ grooming habits feels accurate (although screens don’t transmit smell, of course), Thomas is also rather sympathetic with his blatant case of big fish/small pond syndrome.
But I like “The VVitch” much better, because it has intrigue, scares and reality-based dread to go along with its olden-days misery. The more fantastical “Lighthouse” only hints at potential layers. Since I’m not well-versed on lighthouse history, I wondered if one or two keepers were assigned to a station. Is this perhaps the story of one man going crazy and talking to himself? Then there are the daydreams, namely Ephraim’s sexual imaginings about a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman).
“The Lighthouse” does have that mesmerizing history-come-to-life quality, which might become Eggers’ trademark; I can see how it could suck some viewers into its spiral. It’s filled with things you won’t see in any other film – unless I overlooked other mermaid-f***ing films — and it probably has lots of metaphorical meanings that I’ll learn about from people who liked it. As a viewing experience, though, it’s 109 minutes of misery porn. I’m not a fan of this subgenre in such an undiluted form.