“The Lighthouse” Is Salted with Madness

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If you go to see “The Lighthouse” under the impression that it’s based on “To the Lighthouse,” prepare for a nasty shock. Nobody in the novel, unless my memory deceives me, gets to make out with a mermaid. Or a mattress. Nor do any of Woolf’s characters strip bare and stand next to the lamp in the lighthouse, arms spread wide, bathing in the rays as if worshipping a luminescent god. The film, however, is crammed with such oddities, and more.

The director is Robert Eggers, whose previous work, “The Witch” (2016), re-created the rustic pieties of New England, in the early sixteen-hundreds. Travel coastward, jump two and a half centuries or so, sail into the fog, and you’ll soon make landfall in “The Lighthouse.” The setting is a small island—scarcely more than a rock—off the coast of Maine, to which, as the action begins, two men, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), draw near. A foghorn groans. Their task is to relieve the current occupants of the island, remain there as the sole inhabitants for four weeks, and keep the place in working order. Ephraim, younger and less weathered, will perform the lowlier chores, like scrubbing the floors and emptying the waste into the waves. Thomas has a higher calling. “I tend the light,” he declares. “The light is mine.”

The film is largely a two-hander, with brief incursions from the animal kingdom, and from brutish dreams. There’s an excellent performance from a one-eyed seagull, who presumably went to drama school with Black Phillip, the fiendish goat in “The Witch.” But Dafoe and Pattinson have the stage so much to themselves, and then the result is a beguiling crunch of styles. Dafoe is gnarled, unabashed, and as voluble as a revivalist preacher, though his gospel is that of the sea; you have to go back to Melville—who is name-checked in the end credits—to find monologues so salted with madness, swaying between aria and rant. (“Sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker” is a typical turn of phrase.) Pattinson, by contrast, is glowering and guarded.

The movie is shot in black-and-white, in a format close to square. There is no loose space, for errant details, in the fringes of the frame. Images are centripetal, sucking all the energy into the heart of the screen as if into a whirlpool. Thus, we are met by a single staring eye, wide with alarm; by a living bird being thrashed against concrete, until it’s no more than feathery rags of flesh; by a human head in a lobster pot; and by the hapless Ephraim, wheeling a barrow of coals toward us, in foul rain. As he lurches and spills his cargo, we realize how impossible it is, on this accursed isle, to hold fast. Your temper, your self-control, your mind, your life: anything can be lost.