One of the year’s most unpleasant viewing experiences, The Lighthouse is strong grounds to place Robert Eggers in cinematic timeout.
In the frustrating follow-up to his brilliant 2016 horror hit, The Witch, the co-writer/director aims for similar psychological unease with troubled minds likewise far removed from society, but this time he proves merely a master of drudgery and, ultimately, pointlessness.
Promise nonetheless abounds early on when Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives on an unnamed New England island to train as a lighthouse keeper (or “wickie”) under Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe).
Shot in crisp black and white and accompanied by frequent eerie blasts from a foghorn, the isolated, late 19th-century setting is ripe for terror and only gets more intriguing with the dual mysteries surrounding Ephraim’s past and why Tom won’t allow his apprentice to tend the light.
Sporting a phenomenal beard, Dafoe is generally amusing as a principled and opinionated man of the sea — but without subtitles, half of his thickly accented observations are indecipherable.
Pattinson, however, adds little to their dynamic, and though his performance is often awkward and his own accent inconsistent, the fault lies more with Eggers’ and his brother Max’s paltry script.
Like Pattinson’s collaborations with revered indie directors Claire Denis (High Life), the Zellner brothers (Damsel), David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis; Maps to the Stars), and David Michôd (The Rover), the former Twilight star opts for a poorly written part, suggesting he’s blinded by the chance to work with skilled filmmakers and escape his sparkly vampire past.
Indeed, Ephraim feels as if he could be played by anyone — a stark contrast to the actor’s inspired pairings with James Gray (The Lost City of Z) and the Safdie brothers (Good Time), both of which feel as if they were written specifically with him in mind (and don’t make him sound like a complete dumbass).
Devoid of a character to match Tom’s saltiness, The Lighthouse devolves into a repetitious cycle of the two men getting sloppy drunk, yelling at each other and gradually destroying everything in their living quarters.
But as Ephraim loses his grip on reality — albeit without a foundation that might make viewers care about his descent into madness — Eggers crafts multiple memorable images to distract the audience from his script’s deficiencies. Still, striking as Ephraim’s epic battle with a seagull and his various hallucinatory visions may be, a handful of haunting sights isn’t enough to make a successful film.
Starts Oct. 25 at the Fine Arts Theatre