If motion pictures came packaged with a list of their composite ingredients like foodstuffs, that of Robert Eggers’ latest period freakout The Lighthouse would look like this: shit, piss, puke, jism, perspiration, dirt, salt water, whiskey, and blood. In the same way that these labels will sometimes lump multiple flavorings together under the broad banner of “spices,” Eggers could encompass the rest of his artistic materials with “assorted filth.”
His gnarly follow-up to The Witch forges a rough-hewn beauty from its torrents of bodily excretions and other grime, using stark black-and-white photography and vintage lensing equipment to render the distant past of 19th-century Maine even more hostile and alien than colonial-era Salem Village. There’s an entire universe contained within the remote island housing the film’s action, a no man’s land where weeks can pass overnight and the gulls harbor (nautical pun!) murderous impulses.
It’s here that salty dogs Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe, perfectly cast) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson, reestablishing for the tenth time that he’s his generation’s most exciting actor) have been stationed by an unseen employer. They’ve been tasked with general upkeep and maintenance, all of it arduous enough to make the audience break a sympathy sweat: hauling wheelbarrows of coal, dumping disinfectant into their fecally-tainted water supply, dragging multi-ton drums of oil up stories on stories of spiral staircase. Though the uneasy companions loosen up at night over plates of fresh-caught lobster and rousing sea shanties, all work and no play makes both of them dull boys.
Eggers leans hard into the Kubrick vibe, but unlike his many peers attempting the same, he has the narrative originality and technical expertise to see it through. As the men gradually succumb to the insanity that seems to blanket the island like ocean mist, the cinematography reproduces their crumbling mental state. Every last frame has been processed for maximum eerie texture; at the post-screening Q&A accompanying this film’s Cannes premiere, the director mentioned his goal to see each and every pore on his lead actors’ faces. Though that’d be enough to scare off most Hollywood types, both Dafoe and Pattinson entered the production with a fearlessness necessary in roles calling for frequent flatulence, constant bodily punishment, and one instance of furious masturbation.
They deliver a pair of zero-vanity performances, sinking further into both psychological and literal muck as the nor’easter hitting their stronghold rages on. The odd relationship between the manly-men, suffused as it is with mutual gruffness belying a homoerotic undercurrent, freely vacillates between father-son, boss-employee, and top-bottom. Most commendable of all, both men rip into Eggers and his brother/co-scriptwriter Max’s magnificently byzantine dialogue with rip-roaring brio. Dafoe makes a meal out of this high-quality gristle, barking “ye dog!” as if he was Ahab himself.
The sum total of this film’s lunacy is best kept under wraps — suffice it to say that Eggers deploys a vulva shot unlike any other in the annals of cinema — but rest assured that its inimitable aesthetic could make a trip to the grocery store look like high art. The audience drowns in style along with the characters onscreen, following as they trudge deeper into their own degradation. The same ding-dongs whinging about The Witch not being scary enough will develop hives at the ratcheted-up austerity and shift from physical to metaphysical violence. But for those wayward souls unafraid of a little inclement weather and mind-shattering experiments with form, a superb fit of briny mania awaits.