'The Lighthouse' review: Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in a bamboozler of a tale

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star in "The Lighthouse," opening Friday at R//C Hanover Movies.

A terrific filmmaker, especially since there aren't very many terrific filmmakers, deserves better than to be compared to his previous accomplishments. In other words, I loved director Robert Eggers' debut feature, "The Witch," a 2015 tale of 17th-century witchcraft and goat mismanagement, while admiring without quite completely getting the hang or the rhythm of Eggers' new film, "The Lighthouse."

It's nonetheless well worth seeing, and sorting through. Twice, even. I'd see it a second time for any number of reasons, including but not limited to the wee high voice Willem Dafoe uses to wheedle a compliment regarding his cooking (he's very sensitive about his lobster) out of his fellow "wickie," or lighthouse keeper, or rather lighthouse prisoner, played by Robert Pattinson.

These guys and their facial hair look great in this world, by the way, which goes a long way in itself. "The Lighthouse" establishes a simple, straightforward premise and then proceeds to mess with it, and us. Somewhere in New England in the 1890s, around the time the first filmmakers were discovering a new way to disorient the public, wizened old Thomas Wake (Dafoe, chewing himself a new realm of expressive and weirdly subtle hamming) takes on a short-time assistant wickie, for an estimated four-week job.

The last assistant went mad — some "enchantment in the light," Wake mutters, cryptically, referring to the Fresnel beauties creating wondrous, hypnotic patterns inside the top of the lighthouse. (Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shot the movie in Nova Scotia, where the wind really, really blows.)

The new man (Pattinson), who goes by Ephraim Winslow, harbors a dark secret. Wake, too, knows more than he's telling. Flattering his taciturn second-in-command one minute, berating and humiliating him (while forcing drunken revels) the next, "The Lighthouse" perches right on the edge of a terrifying unknown while offering a compact lesson in the art of passive-aggressive mentoring. Wake's superstitious to an elaborate degree, and when Winslow exhibits his first glaring loss of control, beating a seagull to death in a scarily well-faked scene, Wake takes it as a curse and the beginning of the end.

But of what? Sanity? Sobriety? Eggers treats much of "The Lighthouse" as pitch-black comedy; a writing student of mine called the movie the world's starkest version of "The Odd Couple." Parts of it, visions of mermaid sex or dead men, floating, bubble up as dream sequences from Winslow's subconscious. Other flashes represent different, ambiguous supernatural doings.

Shooting on gorgeous, monochromatic 35 millimeter film, Eggers and company confine the storytelling to a boxlike 1.19:1 aspect ratio. The frame size and shape evokes early sound filmmaking aspect ratios favored particularly by Fox in those days. At its finest, and creepiest, "The Lighthouse" courts comparison (at least in ambition) to F.W. Murnau's fantasies of temptation, desire and striking imagery.

The writing, it must be said, settles for more prosaic achievements. As the two men devolve into drink, "spilled beans" and escalating violence, the actors strain at times to activate scenes which are variations on scenes we've recently seen. But then, near the end ... well, those who already know they're going to take a chance on this strange, fascinating picture deserve a relatively spoiler-free experience.

That's not to say the story operates as any sort of conventional ghost story or thriller, or anything. But on its own terms, thanks to two fine, committed performances and a coastline made for this tall tale, "The Lighthouse" works its own stubborn form of black magic, pulling ideas and dynamics from silent and early sound cinema, from early Harold Pinter plays such as "The Dumb Waiter," and from the recesses of the Eggers brothers' fertile imagination.


3 stars

MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language)

Running time: 1:49