Winslow is a man of few words, who simply wants to get the job done. That job involves intense physical labor, hauling coal and barrels, fixing windows and roofs in the unforgiving outdoors, and abseiling up and down the lighthouse to keep it ship-shape.
There’s tension between the pair from the off, Wake wishing to delve into Winslow’s mysterious past, and endeavoring to frighten him with myths and legends, telling tales of deadly sirens and enchantments in the light, and making claims that his predecessor went mad and promptly died.
That tension builds, and is exacerbated by Wake’s hard drinking, and Winslow’s ghastly visions of horrors on the shore. Are the terrifying images in his mind? Or is there some malevolent force at work? Needless to say, matters eventually come to a head in harrowing fashion.
That’s about it in terms of story. But The Lighthouse is less about plot, and more about psychological warfare. The power struggle between Wake and Winslow is riveting, the men wanting to punch each other one minute, and kiss each other the next, in between the singing, arguing and dancing.
It’s a titanic clash that could appear ridiculous in the hands of lesser actors. But both Dafoe and Pattinson deliver towering performances in what’s essentially a two-hander. You can’t take your eyes off Dafoe, cracking jokes one minute, threatening violence the next, and breaking wind in the moments between. Seriously. The lighthouse foghorn plays a major role in the movie, but Wake’s own wind is just as prominent.
Pattinson, meanwhile, is all pent-up anger and simmering rage, biting his tongue until he can chew it no more, then exploding through a terrifying tirade that makes you fear for Gotham’s crooks when he plays Batman.
Both actors are given thrilling dialogue to exchange, with Eggers and his brother/co-screenwriter Max using 19th Century author Sarah Orne Jewell’s work as a guide. Their love of language bleeds through every scene, the words instantly transporting you to the time and place, and enriching the characters’ back-and-forths.
The cold, stark photography also helps set the scene, breeding a horribly oppressive atmosphere, and mirroring the harsh and unforgiving conditions the men face throughout. Yet in spite of the many hardships presented onscreen, Eggers and his cast find humour in the misery, through clever wordplay, a spot of slapstick, and Winslow’s ongoing battle with a seagull. Indeed, if “Black Peter” was The Witch’s breakout character, launching a thousand memes, so this malevolent bird now has a shot at fame.
The Lighthouse becomes more ambiguous as the film progresses, however, so don’t expect a devastating denouement like the one that made its predecessor so memorable. But two films in, it’s becoming clear that a Robert Eggers film is less about the destination, and more about the journey. And if you’re willing to give yourself over to the dark imagery, taxing language, and terrifying themes, The Lighthouse is one wild ride.