The words “elevated horror” have recently spurred some debate and defensiveness among cinephiles, particularly those who reject the notion that horror needed elevating in the first place. But “The Lighthouse,” Robert Eggers’ bleak and blisteringly funny squall of a film, might actually prove worthy of the term. Not because this movie displays unusual artistry (it does) or transcends its genre (it doesn’t), but for the more literal-minded reason expressed in the title.
For the better part of two hours, we are stranded at a lighthouse station on a craggy island off the coast of Maine, sometime in the 1890s. Two “wickies,” or lightkeepers — played with operatic gusto and slow-simmering intensity by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson — have just arrived at this remote outpost, settling in for four weeks of hard physical labor and grueling psychological warfare. Amid much drinking and swearing, shoveling and snarling, their tempers will gradually turn as foul and corrosive as the New England weather. You don’t know how their story will end, only that it will end badly.
But until then, it’s kind of a blast. Like any number of Hollywood directors before him, Eggers is a hell of a showman and a bit of a sadist, and the brash pleasure of this movie exists in inverse proportion to the misery it inflicts on its characters. “The Lighthouse,” which Eggers wrote with his brother, Max, is a ferocious battle of wills, a tour de force of cold, clammy suspense and a protracted descent into cabin-fever madness. It is also a gorgeous piece of film craft, a chance to savor the visual glories of a bygone era of cinematic artisanship: a boxy aspect ratio, a black-and-white palette bathed in expressionist shadows, the rich textures of 35-millimeter celluloid. (The splendid cinematography is by Jarin Blaschke.)
Eggers, 36, was a production and costume designer before turning to filmmaking, and his mastery of mise-en-scène was already on display in his first feature, “The Witch,” an eerie 17th century gothic about the spiritual torment of an exiled Puritan family. With “The Lighthouse,” another drama of isolation and retreat, the director has grown only more rigorous in his commitment to antiquated dialects, dread-soaked atmosphere and ramshackle production design (courtesy of the gifted Craig Lathrop). It comes as little surprise to learn that the dialogue was heavily influenced by 19th century authors (including Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sarah Orne Jewett), or that the lighthouse station, located on Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, was painstakingly constructed for the film itself.
Fortunately, the setting is interesting for dramatic as well as architectural reasons. Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), a strapping former lumberjack, has come to the island in search of a better future. To that end, he has apprenticed himself to the lighthouse’s longtime keeper, Thomas Wake (Dafoe), a crusty old sea dog who initially skirts caricature with his corncob pipe, bugged-out eyes, wild beard, gravelly voice and unstifled flatulence. Thomas could be an amalgam of Captains Ahab and Haddock, with a little Horatio McCallister from “The Simpsons” thrown in for good measure.
But Dafoe is too marvelous and inventive an actor to be bound by clichés, and his performance is the movie’s most memorably imposing creation — a thing of pungent wit and rude, rum-soaked vitality. Thomas has his flashes of tenderness, especially when he has a tall tale on his tongue and hooch in his belly. But he is also miserly and mean, barking orders at Ephraim and saddling him with undesirable tasks: swabbing the floors, keeping the furnaces lit and emptying the chamber pots. (Mercifully, Eggers’ enthusiasm for old cinematic technologies does not extend to Smell-O-Vision.)
“Stick to yer duties. The light is mine,” Thomas tells Ephraim, warning him away from the bright rotating aerobeacon that he keeps blazing night after night. That light has mysterious, perhaps even mythic properties, and it seems to drive Ephraim slowly mad with resentment as it glares down on him from above, an Olympian hearth eternally out of reach. In these moments, “The Lighthouse” reaches a peak of pure-cinema ecstasy, as the grandeur of Eggers’ imagery becomes inextricable from its meaning: The mesmerizing play of film-noir shadows over Ephraim’s face speaks to his envy and desire more eloquently than words could.
Dafoe may have the showier role, but it is the beautifully brooding Pattinson, eerily channeling a young, mustachioed Robert Mitchum, who has the tricky task of steering this two-hander into a full-blown psychological tempest. Like many younger actors going up against a seasoned veteran, Pattinson has the look of someone with something to prove, and he makes that tension work for the character. His performance plays like a series of mental ruptures, each with its own trigger: an ill-mannered seagull, brutal lashings of rain and wind, persistent foghorn blasts that merge inextricably with Mark Korven’s mighty score. Strange nautical beasties — a mermaid, an octopus — keep washing up in the surf of Ephraim’s mind, awakening in him a dark, primordial energy.
If the imagery tilts toward the Lovecraftian, the emotional dynamics have more than a touch of the Oedipal. The air between the two men is charged with secrecy and suspicion, and both men unleash monologues of great, grandiloquent fury (some of which I only wish I could repeat here). But more than once their hostility gives way to a desperate close-quarters intimacy, rattling the movie’s foundations with a homoerotic shudder. Still, it’s not until Thomas confesses a guilty secret from his past that a line seems to have been crossed, an unspoken code unforgivably violated. By that point, “The Lighthouse” is awash in its briny pathologies, in the muck and mire of the thwarted male ego. The characters are pummeled relentlessly by the elements even as lust, rage and paranoia consume them from within.
It’s an astonishing spectacle, and you can forgive the movie for indulging it even after the story seems to have exhausted its dramatic potential. Having driven his characters to what feels like the ends of the earth, Eggers seems understandably reluctant to let them go, or to abandon the magnificently stormy purgatory he’s erected for them. “The Lighthouse” may be a little too in love with its own virtuosity, but who can blame it? At a time when American movies are overrun with shopworn visions, its madness is a balm and a beacon.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Opens Oct. 18 at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark Theatre, West Los Angeles