Dir: Robert Eggers;
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe.
“We had faces!” Norma Desmond spat in Sunset Boulevard, pining for cinema’s awestruck, hero-worshipping past. The Lighthouse proves we still do. The ferociously entertaining new film from Robert Eggers, director of The Witch, fixates on two of the best in the business, and they belong to Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Pattinson’s, with its stern lines and art deco crags, is like a Soviet statue; while Dafoe’s, two glinting eyes and a knot of teeth hedged in by untamed beard, calls to mind a monster crouching in a bush.
They are the star attractions in this storm-battered maritime horror, set on a remote lighthouse station in the 1890s and shot in severe black and white, with the screen constrained to a portrait-tight Movietone aspect ratio of which Ms Desmond would have approved. You would struggle to describe either man as conventionally handsome here – even before the wind, brine, seagulls, blunt force trauma, flying excreta and unspecified Lovecraftian sludge take their toll. But both have a kind of sublime ugliness that is wholly in keeping with a film that feels less made than hoisted up like treasure from the belly of some rust-bitten shipwreck.
Pattinson plays Ephraim Winslow, the taciturn new apprentice to Dafoe’s lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, who comes across like Captain Haddock crossed with Gollum. As the film begins, both men arrive at their posts through a cloak of fog, braced for a four-week shift. Wake tends the lamp itself, guarding it jealously from his younger colleague, who’s lumbered with the dirty work – scrubbing the cabin, refilling the oil tanks and stoking the boiler while cogs and belts spin around him in a deranging Dziga Vertov whirl. Outside, the crash of waves and caw of gulls is only broken by blasts from the foghorn, echoing over the rocks like the cry of a woebegone T-Rex.