Set in the 1890s, The Lighthouse, the latest film from writer-director Robert Eggers (Witch), takes place on a desolate island of jagged black rock, where Tom (Willem Dafoe) and his new assistant Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) begin a four-week stint.
Driven by two terrific performances by Dafoe and Pattinson, the intensely claustrophobic black and white film comes off as a particularly perverse Hitchcockian thriller. It opens areawide on Friday.
Isolated on the remote island that they call "this goddamn rock," the two men get off to an awkward start when Ephraim refuses to join Tom in a toast, saying that drinking is against regulations spelled out in the manual. "I didn't take you for a reading man," Tom snaps back at him as he tells him it's bad luck to not toast a man.
Tom puts Ephraim in charge of all the menial tasks, so when the roof springs a leak, Ephraim has to climb atop the house and fix the broken shingle. And when the lighthouse beacon needs more oil, Ephraim needs to bring a barrel of it up from the basement, an arduous task that leaves him out of breath and again subject to Tom's wrath.
Like the old drunken sailor that he is, Tom gives unsolicited bits of advice here and there. "Boredom makes men into villains," he says at one point. "The only medicine is drink. It keeps sailors happy, and it keeps them calm."
Often, his temper gets the better of him. When he notices the floors haven't been cleaned to his satisfaction, he accuses Ephraim of neglecting his duties and berates him for it. "Swab, dog! Swab, dog!" he barks at the man in a fit of rage. He tells Ephraim to leave seagulls alone because "in 'em is the souls of sailors who've met their makers."
When the wind shifts, the guys board the windows in preparation for what Tom identifies as an incoming storm. The storm outside mirrors the storm inside the lighthouse as Ephraim begins to hallucinate, and the skirmishes between the two men build in intensity.
Writer-director Eggers effectively turns the lighthouse into a character in the movie. With its blaring foghorn and the way it creaks and groans, the thing makes so much noise, it's almost as if it's breathing. It holds a strange, mystical kind of power over the two men in this captivatingly dark film.