There’s something heartening about genius being put in the service of madness. Already this Cannes we’ve seen the exemplar in a fully restored 4K version of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but at the Quinzaine a sea-change took place. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is something rich and strange, but also something of the body and the mundane.
This is clear from the very first shots: a stark black and white image; a foghorn moaning above the thumping of the waves on the stern; and a lighthouse appearing out of the murk. The two lighthouse keepers are grizzled Irishman Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his new apprentice Winslow (Robert Pattinson) – although names will only come much later. First, there are jobs to be done: the cistern to be cleaned; coal to be barrowed, and the lantern itself to be attended to. However, this task Wake keeps for himself and treats Winslow like a lackey, threatening him with docked wages for any disobedience.
Wake is a nightmare boss. He farts a lot, and when he isn’t barking orders, he’s getting drunk and yarning on his seagoing days, scuppered in the end by a buggered leg. Winslow at first suffers in silence, refusing a drink because of regulations. But there’s also the feeling that he’s wound up a bit too tight and has some shady history of his own. There’s also the island itself, with its warning phallus, coal-fuelled foghorn and cottage connected to the faro by a long gallery. The seagulls are a menace and there might be mermaids in the shallows. Madness has already taken Winslow’s predecessor (a hint of The Shining, perhaps) and superstitions reign as the two men go quietly mad and the storm approaches.
If Eggers’ The Witch was all about female identity and will, The Lighthouse casts its glare on the male psyche with a powerful, eviscerating beam. Time becomes elastic and facts become skewed with delusions coming in with the fog. Once Winslow decides its time for a drink on the eve of their four-week stint being up, all hell breaks loose. What is Wake doing alone and naked with the lantern every night? Why does the seagull hate Winslow so? Was that a mermaid or a dead body?
It’s hard to overstate just how accomplished this film is in every department. The sound design and music by Damian Volpe and Mark Korven thunder and rasp throughout. The production design and costume likewise, brilliant. Jarin Blaschke’s stark black and white cinematography is at times classical and at times surreal: bold, brutal and beautiful. For such a visual film, the script continues Eggers’ (along with brother and co-writer Max) method of using authentic period correct dialogue and a lot of it. There are chunks of quote-worthy dialogue, twist and turns of language as serpentine as the tentacles that appear. Yes, there are tentacles.
The two leads chew into their words with performances that must stand as one of the greatest two-handers since the original Sleuth. Dafoe seems to give a career-best performance every single year – The Florida Project and At Eternity’s Gate – but again he’s amazing here: loquacious, demented, petty and hilarious. And forget Batman: Robert Pattinson proves himself once more to be a fearless character actor who brings a layered understanding to Winslow and does not hold back when the shit almost literally hits the fan.
Both men throw themselves physically into their parts in a way totally at odds with the usual leading man vanity. Eggers has created a film of disturbing horror, absurdist comedy and probing psychodrama which defies the generic boundaries as it breaks through them. The Lighthouse is a saltwater gothic masterpiece.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty