What is the opposite of a crowd-pleaser? A crowd-splitter, maybe?
Whatever you call it, “The Lighthouse” is one. The challenging, horror-ish movie from “The Witch” writer/director Robert Eggers pits two characters against each other in an isolated lighthouse in the 1890s. From the moment one of them mutters, “Boredom make men. The only medicine is drink,” it’s evident things are not going to turn out well. (Much of the dialogue has been repurposed from the work of “Moby Dick” writer Herman Melville, another foreboding sign.)
Opening with the insistent blare of a foghorn, the low-contrast, black-and-white cinematography of Jarin Blaschke establishes immediately that we are, essentially, in another world. Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) journey wordlessly to the remote lighthouse and, once they’re dropped off, they never see another person (although there is that mermaid ... ). They’re set up as opposites in almost every way: refined, taciturn teetotaler Ephraim vs. vulgar, garrulous drunk Thomas, and at no point in “The Lighthouse” does it feel like a movie in which two disparate individuals will forget their differences to collaborate on a chatty podcast about how funny and yet wise the world is.
No. Madness will set in and one or both of these grumps will end up dead.
The men bicker, drink, keep secrets and glimpse each other naked in “The Lighthouse,” where the repressed sexuality feels like the least dangerous of the many impulses bubbling beneath the surface. Eggers keeps incredible control of the physical aspects of “The Lighthouse,” all of which seem to connect to the very beginnings of the movies, around the time this one is set. The sound is weirdly disconnected, as if it’s coming at us from somewhere other than the screen, the atonal music is jarring and the murky visuals suggest early cinematic artists such as Carl Dreyer. With low ceilings and off-kilter angles, it basically looks like the guys’ shared bedroom is in the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
All of that is designed to get us off-balance, even before “The Lighthouse” reveals what Thomas is hiding at the top of the lighthouse, fills us in on what happens if you kill a seagull (it’s bad) and shows one of the men leading the other around like a dog. Mysterious, challenging and possibly otherworldly, “The Lighthouse” sometimes reminded me of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Barton Fink” in the way it draws us closer and closer to a shadow world that exists alongside the real one and in its interest in the shiftiness of identity (at various points, the men seem to switch roles).
Maybe that’s why I expected “The Lighthouse,” like “Barton Fink,” to go bonkers at the end. It does, in a manner of speaking, but Eggers has done such an amazing job of establishing a feeling of dread from the very beginning that the ending is anticlimactic. I’m willing to believe the unsettling “The Lighthouse” will deepen the more I think about it — “The Witch” certainly did — but, right now, I’m not sure it sheds much light on anything.