A film not so much steeped in baroque style as positively marinated in it, Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse – playing in Directors’ Fortnight – emerged on Sunday morning as the most exciting and individual film so far in the entire festival. Expectations were high for a two-hander starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, and directed by the man whose eerie historical chiller The Witch (2015) was one of the most inventive US debuts in recent years.
The Lighthouse goes into Herman Melville territory – quite literally, as much of the dialogue is taken from sources including his writing and the journals of 19th-century lighthouse keepers. But it’s Melvillean in other ways. There’s a bravura moment where Dafoe’s character, shot from below and lit to look absolutely demonic, delivers a torrential maritime curse, wishing all the demons of the deep upon the Pattinson character’s head – and suddenly, you can absolutely see what a full-blown Orson Welles Moby Dick would have been like.
The film takes us exactly into the spiral of madness and disaster that we’re expecting from the start, and throws on its dream imagery in crashing waves (mermaids, dead from the deep, tentacular flailings of the H.P. Lovecraft variety). But what keeps this nightmare vessel afloat, along with the performances, is the film’s phenomenally inventive style. It’s to be found not just in the camerawork (a magnificently ominous vertical crane up the dark interior of the lighthouse itself) and in Craig Lathrop’s richly detailed design, but in the sound too, Mark Korven’s music (was that the creak of a bass harmonica?) meshing wonderfully with Damian Volpe’s sound design, full of the threatening clank of machinery and the deathly boom of the island’s foghorn.
Jonathan Romney, Sight & Sound