On the edge of sanity

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse. Photo: A24 FILMS

In Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse, Willem Dafoe is a demented Poseidon, or perhaps a crazed, ocean-battered ex-sailor on the run from a Melville novel. Playing one of the two lighthouse keepers on a wind-whipped rocky islet in the Atlantic, circa 1890s, Dafoe turns up his mad-uncle mode, feral hair, chronic farting and drawling speech, plus a possessive relationship with the lantern -- the source of light atop the lighthouse (he refers to it as a "she").

Posted there with Dafoe's Thomas is Robert Pattinson's Winslow. Pattinson -- those who still remember him as an emo-vampire in the Twilight saga a century ago must have lost touched with 21st century pop-culture -- is a bundle of distorted nerves and flesh, a damaged, shipwreck soul. A sane man on arrival, Winslow quickly descends an irreversible path toward madness, ravaged by pain, guilt, solitude, and a lusty dream of a beached mermaid.

Together they make an odd, even comical pair of lighthouse keepers at first. Only that The Lighthouse, a new film by the director of The Witch, overwhelms us with its vintage black-and-white cinematography (shot with a silent-era camera) and the smothering ambience of Gothic horror and pagan dread, punctuated by a monstrous foghorn, and soon the mood turns gallows-sickly. This is a weird, nervy film that dunks their characters in a pool of shadow as black as octopus ink and washes them in the ashen light of a portending sky. You may or may not follow the shifting dynamics and planes of reality that exist between the two characters -- but that doesn't matter, because you should see the film to feel the film, not to understand it. Any of it.

Isolated, storm-tossed, wrecked by boredom and mounting suffocation, Winslow first endures then rebels against Thomas' eccentric authority. At night, the senior lighthouse keeper refuses his understudy to go anywhere near the lantern. But what is in the lantern? Winslow climbs the spiral steps up the lighthouse and glimpses, what? Maybe a woman, a tentacled monster, a terror, or maybe his master's naked body pressed against the glass. The rarified air of the ocean, the sky infested with shrieking seagulls, the rocky moonscape -- Winslow is living on an island or probably on an alternative geography of consciousness altogether. I don't know, I couldn't care less to know.

Now, because Eggers' previous film, The Witch, concerns the superstitious paranoia against the female in puritanical America, naturally it's tempting to see The Lighthouse as a study of the opposite. The lighthouse, as a physical object, always tempts the excitable, Freud-worshipping mind to read it as a phallic symbol -- so, we have two men trapped with a giant, ever-erect penis on a depopulated atoll, one of them constantly jerking off to a voodoo mermaid doll.

Of course, toxic masculinity, sexual frustration and other gender-related issues may be extracted, but I don't see any point in that. The Lighthouse is a deranged, powerful experience because you feel the sensory thrills and the raw cinematic vibrations coming off from the screen, and not because you can crack the symbols and know what they mean.

Speaking of raw cinematic experience, it's right that Jari Blaschke has been nominated for Best Cinematography and yet it's surprising that neither Dafoe nor Pattinson get an Oscar nod. At least one of them should, or both. I mean, it's just so much fun watching the two sailors drunkenly tearing into each other before embracing in a thrall of escalating madness.

The Lighthouse is described as a Gothic horror, and in honour of that time-tested genre, the film is aware that in every Gothic tale there's a note of dark sensuality. Unlikely as it seems, Dafoe and Pattinson have given us one of the oddest, craziest and tenderest on-screen couples of the year.