Robert Eggers’ sophomore effort follows two 19th century lighthouse keepers gradual descent towards madness at their isolated outpost in an ethereal trip through the annals of sailor myth and folklore.
Willem Dafoe is Tom Wake, the pipe-smoking, liquor-drinking, veteran lighthouse keeper, who’s as well versed in sea shanties as he is island maintenance.
This four-week stretch on the island is a doddle for him, the only setback being his suspicious leg injury.
His previous assistant died of lunacy after unexplainable visions, leaving him with Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow.
A mysterious, closed book figure, the antithesis to Wake’s deranged sailor look. He left his logging job in Canada for the lighthouse, a decision even he doesn’t seem 100% sold on.
Wake tends to the light, spending his nights locked in the tower, his shadow sprawled across the land by the all encompassing beacon. Meanwhile Winslow conducts the more menial jobs, from cleaning the cistern to maintaining the machinery.
Winslow catches Wake basking in the elysian light, his body seems possessed by it, as if drawing some supernatural energy from its beams.
As he continues to pick up the dirty work around the island, he becomes more and more infatuated with this forbidden fruit. What lies at the top of the stairs is a mystery to him, a mystery that gnaws at him day and night, and isn’t long before it leads to him questioning his, and Wake’s, sanity.
Various encounters with the unexplainable from Winslow leave him decidedly deranged, but these bouts of madness are short and unclear, did they really happen? Is his mind playing tricks on him? Or even worse, is he going the way of Wake’s last assistant?
Wake’s farting and boozing chip further away at him, each fart seems to blow the steam from Ephraim’s sails slightly more. Over drinks (and more drinks) they forge a friendship of sorts, although a clear mistrust lies between them.
The tight aspect ratio locks you in small rooms with them, forcing you to look on as one drink too many sharply turns the tides, the mood quickly changing from sea shanties and drunken dancing to long, aggressive monologues packed with elaborate sea swears.
The script shines in these moments, the archaic language doesn’t become a barrier, instead it adds to the intensity of each and every line, the wordplay drags you in to the conversation, demanding that you pore over every word spoken, making you overthink just as much as Winslow.
Their bond becomes more disjointed as they spend more time on the island, and Eggers ramps up the intensity with ease.
An overbearing foghorn blares louder and louder, the sea becomes even choppier, and the camera glides faster across the jagged landscape of the island.
Eggers’ has a remarkable ability to leave the audience entirely uncertain as to what is going on but still maintain high stakes. Just when you think you have a hook on the plot, and reality, it reels away, constantly avoiding any sense of clarity.
And it’s this elusiveness to clarity that makes the third act so devastating, with the final scene having iconography that will sit in cinema history alongside the classics in years to come.
A film like this doesn’t come around very often. Elusive and petrifying, it will crawl under your skin and leave you asking more questions than it answers. The fact that a film such as this can get funded in 2019 is surely a good sign.
MM’s score: 5/5
Image courtesy of A24 via Twitter, with thanks.