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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Waves crash, birds scream, and rain pounds. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse wants to drive you a little mad. It’s not just a film about two people on the edge of sanity, it uses sound design and filmmaking tools to push you there too. It has the feel of watching someone else’s nightmare, and it’s not one that’s going to end well.
The film opens with the two men arriving to work a shift at a lighthouse on the edge of the world. Thomas (Willem Dafoe) is the older one and the boss of the operation. He orders around Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) making sure he takes care of all of the daily duties but always reminding him who’s in charge. A film that is already in experimental territory from its opening scene gets more and more surreal, allowing us to question which one of these guys will go crazy first and what the repercussions will be.
As the old-timer of the two, Thomas gets to remain tantalisingly vague for a while in that we’re not sure if he’s just a jerk or someone actively trying to destroy the person making him beans. He's hysterical and annoying in equal measure. Pattinson imbues Ephraim with desperation, the reasons for which are revealed later, that makes his plight more tragic. He doesn’t just need to survive, he needs this job to climb out of the hole of life. He needs the light. He needs success.
This is a film that’s constantly calling attention to the choices of its director and creative team. From the decision to shoot it in gray 4:3 ratio to heighten the claustrophobia to the non-stop cacophony of noise—it feels like if they don’t kill each other, the waves or storm will—The Lighthouse is a sensory assault. Although maybe that’s the point. Maybe this is just Eggers’ existential version of a salty dog tale told on the high seas—the urban legend of a couple of guys stuck on a lighthouse who drove each other insane. Anyone searching for more than that does so at their own peril. Be careful not to crash on the rocks.