THE LIGHTHOUSE, horror, rated R, 109 minutes, Violet Crown, 4 chiles
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson have two of the most mesmerizing — and pleasurably unnerving — physiognomies in movies. In The Lighthouse, a sly American Gothic set in the late 19th century, the director Robert Eggers lights and frames the actors to emphasize every bony plane, every facial crease, every hollow and pinprick of stubble. The stark black-and-white cinematography deepens the film’s shadows and unease, but it also throws these grizzled faces into relief, sharpening their cheekbones and revealing the death’s head under each man’s grimace.
A horror movie about inner and outer darkness, the film begins with two lighthouse workers, Wake (Dafoe) and Winslow (Pattinson), arriving on a small, desolate island. Over many solitary days and nights, they work, eat, drink, and dig at each other, establishing a bristling antagonism born of temperament, boredom, or maybe just narrative convenience. The men aren’t ready conversationalists. But in time, their minds and tongues are loosened by alcohol and perhaps a simple human need for companionship. The wind howls, the camera prowls, the sea roars, and Eggers flexes his estimable filmmaking technique as an air of mystery rapidly thickens.
Much as he did in his shivery feature debut, The Witch, about an isolated family of fundamentalists coming unglued in early 17th-century America, Eggers makes the secluded world in The Lighthouse at once recognizable and eerily unfamiliar. The image of the lighthouse evokes visions of high seas and storms as well as the promise of safe passage and harbor. But that romantic idea soon sours. This brick tower looks utilitarian and ominous, a twin to the 19th century’s industrial smokestacks.
An old salt with alarmed hair and a wedge-shaped beard worthy of Melville, Wake is the keeper of the lighthouse flame, the guardian of its traditions. Dafoe’s mercurial movements beautifully articulate Wake’s moods: He barks orders, sings a shanty, indulges in sentimentality, and turns his yowling mouth into an abyss.
The men don’t use the therapy-speak of contemporary American cinema (or life) with its endless over-explaining. Instead, Wake and Winslow come into focus through guttural exchanges, physicality, and their environments. The story is thin enough to invite plentiful interpretations about masculinity, homosocial relations, and desire. The film’s more sustained pleasures, though, are its form and style, the frowning curve of Winslow’s mustache, the whites of eyes rolled back in terror. Eggers meticulously sets the scene and builds tension from men locked in battle and sometimes in embrace. He’s created a story about an age-old struggle, one that is most satisfyingly expressed in this film’s own tussle between genre and its deviations. — Manohla Dargis/The New York Times