Enter "The Lighthouse " at your own risk.
This is a stark, moody, surreal and prolonged descent into seaside madness that will surely not be for everyone. But those who do choose to go on this black-and-white journey with Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe will ultimately find it a rewarding one, even if the blaring fog horn rings in your ears for days to come. Director Robert Eggers has made something truly visionary — stripped down and out of time — that asks the viewer to simply submit to his distinctive, strange, funny and haunting tale of a pair of "wickies" in 1890 New England tasked with keeping the lighthouse running.
Pattinson and Dafoe make for inspired casting choices for this two-hander, with Pattinson as the rookie, Winslow, a former timber man who was looking for a different life, and Dafoe as the greying veteran, Wake, who is determined to keep things in order. Winslow is not exactly an eager student or subordinate. He wants the lighthouse to be his as soon as he gets to the island. He does not have a seafarer's attention to detail and is ill-equipped to handle the endless drudgery of keeping the house tidy and shoveling rocks back and forth across the island. Plus, he's been having some increasingly demonic and disturbing dreams, has made an enemy of a taunting sea bird and also has to deal with Wake's constant badgering and flatulence (seriously).
But Wake knows that there's a reason for their backbreaking work, seemingly unnecessary chores and ancient superstitions ("It's bad luck to kill a sea bird," he tells Winslow, advising him to stop quarrelling with his winged tormentor). Boredom, he says later, makes men turn to villains. All they have are their tasks to keep them from going mad. Naturally, madness finds them anyway. The film becomes a kind of phantasmagoria as you are left wondering what's real, what's imagined and whether or not that even matters.
Eggers, who broke out with the terribly creepy "The Witch," continues to prove his unique ability to transport an audience to a different time. He relishes in the language of the era and gives both his stars deliciously odd monologues to chew on and spurt out. The dialogue may be minimal — in fact it takes more than a few minutes for the first word to be uttered — but that bare bones approach makes what is said even more impactful.
"The Lighthouse" is a triumph of mood and vision, like the love child of Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch that knows that its actors are just a small piece of the overall composition. The sounds of the sea, the waves crashing violently against the rocks, the birds, that cursed fog horn and the looming eye of the lighthouse are all equal co-stars. That's not to diminish the joy of the acting, however. Pattinson and Dafoe have a wonderfully complex relationship that at times even borders on that of a bickering married couple whose passion is long gone.
If there is a complaint to be made, it is simply that "The Lighthouse" doesn't exactly justify its nearly two hour runtime. While the images and actors remain transfixing, the experimental approach starts to wear thin after about 60 minutes. After 90 it's downright mind-numbing and repetitive. That's not to say that it is not worth it. In fact, this is a movie that demands to be consumed distraction-free. But by the end, you might find yourself feeling as crazy and untethered as the wickies.
"The Lighthouse," an A24 release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language." Running time: 110 minutes. Three stars out of four.