Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit”, about three deceased strangers whose afterlife involves being trapped in the same room for eternity, was the source of the now infamous line “Hell is other people”. It seems that director Robert Eggers agrees, if his latest film, The Lighthouse, is anything to go by.
The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe as Tom Wake, a seasoned lighthouse-keeper, and Robert Pattinson as a man going by the brilliant name of Ephraim Winslow; Wake’s temporary charge. Both men are tasked with maintaining a lighthouse somewhere off the Maine coast, with only themselves, a flock of angry-looking seagulls and a small carving of a mermaid to keep them company for four weeks, before a boat is due to return to bring Winslow back to the mainland. As you can probably guess, there’s little hope of that return journey happening for the new boy.
Things take a turn for the worst after a few days going about their duties, when Winslow decides two things must happen: first, that he’s going to take action against the seemingly malevolent seagulls which plague the island, and secondly, that he’s going to get to the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse, a room to which only Tom Wake has the key. Thus begins an increasingly hostile relationship between Dafoe and Pattinson’s characters, punctuated by the expulsion of bodily fluids, comedy farting and the constant, rhythmic, foreboding honking of a foghorn. All of this weaves in and out of Mark Korven’s oppressive score, and the entire atmosphere of the film is unrelentingly intense throughout.
The whole film feels like a bad dream from start to finish, and the unyielding performances from Pattinson and Dafoe do little to make the ride any easier. That’s not to say that they’re not any good, in fact both actors are phenomenal here: as their time alone together on the island drags on, their sanity gives way to frantic, drunken jigs and nonsensical, often violent altercations, the ferocity of which builds just as an almighty storm threatens to break upon them both.
The toxicity of their relationship, and indeed of themselves, is the greatest monster on screen. The seagulls whose presence torments Winslow, and the suggestion of a kraken which appears to have its tentacles woven through the lighthouse all feel like manifestations of the two men’s innate monstrosity, and Wake and Winslow’s refusal to climb down is what ultimately proves their undoing.
The Lighthouse is a film which feels like it’s always at a risk of getting lost in its own chaos, but to Eggers’ credit he reins things in enough so that the film never threatens to outstay its welcome. Combined with two brilliantly unhinged performances, the film feels like a stormy sea; it pulls in all directions and never looks remotely interested in letting its audience go until the very end, when there’s finally some semblance of reality. With this and The Witch, Eggers has established himself as a formidable creative force in horror cinema. Although talk of his long-gestating version of Nosferatu seems to suggest that that project may sadly fail to come to fruition, there’s no lack of certainty that the director is here to stay.