It was the 1890s. Two men were sent to maintain a lighthouse in a remote island of rock in New England. Thomas Wake was the older guy with the false leg who kept the key to the light at the tower top. Ephraim Winslow was the younger guy who did all the other heavier chores around the place. Soon, the miserable life conditions take their toll on Ephraim leading him to fantasize about mermaids and kill seagulls. Later, the two men take out their perpetual drunken madness on each other.
The acting styles of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson hark back to the era of silent cinema, with exaggerated facial expressions and over-the-top gesticulations. When they were shouting furiously against each other while seriously inebriated, crazy matched with crazy, chaos matched with chaos. They spoke in an archaic sort of sailor slang English which I admit I could not understand fully all the time.
Dafoe had been known as an intense actor ever since that iconic silent scream scene of his in "Platoon" (1986), which got him the first of his four Oscar nominations for acting. As Thomas Wake, Dafoe was as curmudgeonly salty as one can get, with more than a hint of instability from the get-go. His most memorable scene here was that one when he was lying in a hole in the ground and he was rambling while soil was being thrown on his face. That harrowing scene was one haunting image of dedication to the craft of acting that few actors can match.
If Dafoe was expected to fit right into an art film like "The Lighthouse," Pattinson was the big surprise. After gaining super-stardom as the vampire hunk Edward Cullen in the much-maligned" Twilight Saga" films, Pattinson struggled to rebuild his reputation as a serious actor. This should be the culmination of that journey as he matched Dafoe's madness every step of the way, and gave it his own younger, more volatile spin of disturbed. Aside from scenes of his perverse fetishes, he had two chilling scenes with seagulls, one at the very end which will haunt you as you step out of the cinema and long after that.
When you watch "The Lighthouse," you are immediately taken back to the time of classic cinema when movies were in extremely contrasted black and white, and actors were shot in extreme closeup. The squarish screening aspect lent further claustrophobia to the already heavy atmosphere. The images conjured up by director Robert Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke reminded me of classic film directors like Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Lang, Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles.
This arthouse film is definitely not for mainstream audiences. Like it or not, you still recognize its merits as a serious piece of cinematic art. It won't take long that "The Lighthouse" will likewise be hailed as a classic in its own right, like the films by the masters it evoked.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."