There are movies that as a critic you wish you could recommend in pieces, but not as a full-on start-to-finish experience. “This movie isn’t worth the ticket price and two hours in the dark, but if you come upon it on HBO or it pops up on Netflix you should watch a few scenes to get the flavor!” That’s not a blurb that will end up on many movie posters, but there are cases in which it’s the only reasonable response.
And it’s my recommendation for viewers considering The Lighthouse, an exercise in highbrow horror that stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two “wickies” — New England lighthouse keepers, that is, thrust together for a long stint on a far-from-shore light, with no one to share their solitude save waves and gulls and fog. It’s the work of Robert Eggers, whose first movie, The Witch, was a different sort of exercise in Yankee horror, playing in Hawthorne’s territory with paranoid Puritans and deep forests and intimations of the diabolical. This time he’s operating in the late 19th century, borrowing a bit from Melville, a bit from Coleridge, and a great deal from Greek mythology — as well as from the pride and joy of Providence, Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
And in pieces, it works. One piece is the look of the film, done in black and white, in a boxy, old-fashioned frame, with stark exteriors stripped of the colors that gentle seascapes and make them less forbidding. Another piece is the lighthouse itself, its stark white shape and twisting inner stair: My great-grandfather was born in an island lighthouse, and in most of the Maine-related books we read our kids they have a comforting aspect, beacons of hope that house doughty lighthousekeepers and their wives. But their gothic potential is obvious, and here — as in the Southern Reach novels, the basis for last year’s artsy-sci-fi exercise Annihilation — the lighthouse serves brilliantly as a locus of mystery and horror, a force of attraction and of menace.
Then, along with style and setting, The Lighthouse has one good performance, from Pattinson, solid behind his mustache as a put-upon younger man carrying a secret, and one great one, from Dafoe, wearing a thick Neptunian beard and thicker seafaring accent, and playing his old-salt veteran as a twinkling tyrant, a Melvillian pastiche, a scenery-chewing, poetry-spouting taskmaster who might be quite mad and might just be in on the joke.
So that’s what there is to like about the movie — all the constituent parts, basically, which is hardly a small compliment. But the plot that’s supposed to hold them all together defiantly refuses to cohere. It’s set up as a mystery: Pattinson’s Ephraim is replacing a prior lighthouse assistant who went mad (or so Dafoe’s Tom tells him), and he finds the prior assistant’s carved mermaid and then begins to spot or imagine mermaids himself. Meanwhile the older man refuses to let him into the lighthouse tower, where he appears to stand naked during his night shift; he writes endlessly in a logbook that’s kept under lock and key; and he warns Ephraim that seagulls carry the souls of dead sailors and under no circumstances is he to hurt or kill a gull.
All this setup seems to promise surprising answers, decisive revelations as the island nightmare nears its end. But Eggers is overcommitted to his mysteries, intent on refusing any sort of dramatic twist or clarifying reveal. We do learn a crucial secret from Ephraim’s past, but its implication for events on the island is as ambiguous as everything else. Apart from that, the movie piles on signifiers like an early episode of Lost — dreams and hallucinations, violent vignettes and shouted speeches, a maritime mythology that may have some kind of key (Eggers himself has suggested reading the movie as Greek-myth fan fiction — what if Proteus and Prometheus hung out?) but doesn’t work hard enough to establish the whys and wherefores of its characters’ behavior. Which leaves us, in the end, marooned with the cop-out explanation: Well, we’re watching men go crazy, so it doesn’t all need to make sense.
And watching men drink and fight and possibly hallucinate, rinse and repeat, is interesting only until it isn’t, a moment that arrived for me about 20 minutes before the end, when I discerned, correctly, that there wasn’t going to be any kind of satisfying “click.” True to its Lovecraftian influences, The Lighthouse is far more memorable for its mood, its feeling of creeping, tentacled dread, than for anything that definitively happens to its characters. As an homage to the mythmakers of ancient Greece it simply fails, because say what you will about the Achaean storytellers, they knew how to write a plot.
This article appears as “Island Nightmare” in the November 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.