New Hampshire-bred filmmaker Robert Eggers grabbed the attention of arthouse and horror connoisseurs alike with his 2015 debut, “The Witch,” an aesthetically spare, dramatically rich chiller about a Puritan family inexorably dragged down by the supernatural. Eggers returns with more lo-fi, high-impact dread in “The Lighthouse,” a Robert Pattinson-Willem Dafoe showcase — and how — about a pair of island lightkeepers in 1890s New England spiraling into peril, mystery, and quite possibly madness.
Arrestingly shot in black-and-white and a vintage, boxy aspect ratio, the film punctuates its intro of Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) with a portrait image sternly authentic enough to have been hand-picked from a historical archive. The same holds for the duo’s remote, unidentified outpost (actually Nova Scotia), a station so hauntingly stark that as the shift-change vessel that deposited them disappears, we can practically see hope sailing away, too.
As crusty, pipe-clenching Thomas and his subdued subordinate get to work, their respective roles simultaneously become clearer and more enigmatic. The senior man plays taskmaster with relish, assigning Ephraim endless drudgery and strangely denying him access to the light itself. (He’s just as militant about not harming seagulls — “In ’em’s the souls o’ sailors!” — an edict that goes ignored in a scene that might rile PETA, but should also gratify beachgoers sick of having their lunches snatched.)
Ephraim, for his part, applies himself and bristles by turns, hauling lamp oil, greasing machinery, swabbing, and shingling. The attention Eggers devotes to the job’s particulars are part of what make this such a transportive cinematic journey. (As with “The Witch,” Eggers and his brother and co-writer, Max, also drew from period writing to shape the dialogue.)
In those moments when our beleaguered grunt isn’t slaving away or indulging Thomas’s old-salt ramblings over meals, he’s having troubling, cryptic flashbacks. Or taking some “me” time to fantasize about a mythical siren (Valeriia Karaman). Or fixating on whatever secret his superior is hiding up top (a tease that’s ultimately oversold). But who’s losing his grip more alarmingly, the obsessive fella fetishizing a whittled mermaid, or the one inexplicably stripping down to commune with a giant glass torch?
Pattinson and Dafoe dig into their roles, all right, with both actors crazily, mesmerizingly toggling from workaday to recriminating to maniacal and on and on. Together with Eggers they deliver a masterful study of souls trapped on a rock alone, but also trapped together, with all the twisty complexities involved.
In a departure from Eggers’s prior credit, the devolving dynamics are sometimes even played for laughs. Witness Ephraim finally venting his close-quarters frustrations in an epic rant that you could imagine drawing cheers from put-upon roommates everywhere. “I’m tired of your Captain Ahab [expletive],” he rails. Maybe so, but we can’t get enough.
Directed by Robert Eggers. Written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers. Starring Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman. At Boston Common. 109 minutes. R (sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, some language).Tom Russo can be reached at [email protected]