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A youngish drifter joins an old-timer to serve as his assistant running a lighthouse on an isolated, indeed god-forsaken, island. That’s all you need to know about the plot of The Lighthouse, because it’s not a film you see for the plot; it’s experiential, a sublime example of an ostensibly narrative feature film that compels you (and boy does The Lighthouse compel you) through its 109 minutes through virtuosic visual and aural stimulation. Call it ecstatic cinema.
Robert Eggers, the auteur of this absolutely auteurist work, previously made The VVitch, and The Lighthouse reverberates with that film’s early-times-in-New-England setting (The VVitch was set in the 1630s, The Lighthouse in the late 1800s), its hand-made wooden sets and props, and its spectacularly florid period language (wait’ll you hear Willem Dafoe, in an Oscar-nominated performance, get his mouth around it). But, like his contemporary, peer and possible artistic soulmate Ari Aster, Eggers’ sophomore effort is as much a black comedy as a horror film. As Aster’s Midsommar was to Hereditary, so too is The Lighthouse a wild trip compared to The VVitch’s mapped-out precision.
And what a trip! This is mesmerising, head-spinning stuff, full of shots, moments, scenes and sequences that are pretty indelible and pretty incredible. Shot in miserable conditions (and the dramatic weather’s all up there on the screen) in Nova Scotia, as essentially a two-hander (Robert Pattinson being the young gun up against Dafoe’s incredibly salty sea-dog), in striking 35mm B&W (the cinematography is nominated for an Oscar), there is nothing else like it. I was stunned to get to see it at Event Cinemas Bondi Junction – a mainstream Australian theatre chain and location – on their biggest screen (VMAX!) – as though it was the latest superhero movie. Whether they felt that Pattinson’s involvement meant this would pack in the young ‘uns, or they actually recognised a spectacle demanding their best possible facilities, they’re to be praised for playing a film this wonderfully nutty as though it’s mainstream. Unclassifiable, maybe it was pitched to them thus: Wake In Fright meets Ida meets Splash. That’ll sell some popcorn!