Grizzled old timer Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is an old salt, a cantankerous curmudgeon set in his ways and protective of his precious lamp. Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) is the younger newbie who comes to the rock for a four-week rotation replacing a predecessor whose departure is the subject of some mystery. The background of Howard himself is not without its mystery, especially as relates to his previous work as a Canadian timberman, his relationship with fellow worker Ephraim Winslow (Logan Hawkes) and the reasons he left. As the weeks drag on, the tension of their abrasive relationship grows, as do the strange experiences and visions visited upon the new wickie – the discovery of a scrimshaw (a bone carving) of a mermaid hidden in his mattress, nightmarish imagery of tree stumps floating in water, the unsettling presence of gulls (Wake tells Howard never to kill a seabird because they’re the reincarnation of drowned sailors), the hallucinatory appearance of a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) and Wake’s determination to prevent Howard from gaining access to the lamp room at the top of the lighthouse. Resistant, at first, to Wake’s invitation to partake of some pretty rough looking alcohol, Howard eventually relents, and the atmosphere descends into a drunken and at times violent miasma steeped in secrets and superstitions and, ultimately, madness.
The screenplay for The Lighthouse (written by Eggers with his brother Max) has its origins in Edgar Allan Poe’s final unfinished work of the same name (interestingly that scant work – barely two pages of four journal entries, the last one blank – has inspired many attempts at expansion or adaptation including the short story Horror in the Lighthouse by Robert Bloch and Benjamin Cooper’s 2016 movie, Edgar Allan Poe’s Lighthouse Keeper). When Max Eggers’ reworking of Poe’s fragment stalled, Robert stepped in and, leaving Poe behind, they produced this new work. The result is a bit of a mixed bag of fascinating language (the research from which the language is drawn gets its own credit at the end), compelling characterisations and an assortment of promising but ultimately unresolved narrative threads that undermine the overall cohesiveness of the film. The many mysteries of the layered story - Howard’s background, the fate of the previous wickie, the possibility that a malevolent force surrounds the lighthouse, the authenticity or not of the mermaid and the reason Wake doesn’t want Howard to enter the lamp room – all these threads are enticing and well set up but none of them feel like they reach their completion by the end of the film.
Visually and aurally, the film is powerful and sublime. Jarin Blaschke’s black and white imagery is glorious and the square framing of its 1.19:1 aspect ratio adds to the authentic feel of the pictures on the screen. Production design by Craig Lathrop and Art Direction by Matt Likely evoke a bleak, rudimentary and harsh environment both in its natural world and man-made elements and Mariusz Glabinski’s sound design is relentless and foreboding. At times this movie is compelling and dense like a Samuel Beckett play, but at other times it breaks the bounds of constraint allowing the actors freedom to go over the top; something that seems to please Dafoe and Pattinson, but winds up doing no favours for the audience experience. In the end, as beautiful as this movie looks and sounds and as strong as the performances might be, the overall effect, for me at least, was that the heart of the story, the unsettling, mythological narrative, seemed to be swamped by the triumph of style over substance.