Dafoe and Pattinson play Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, respectively, two nineteenth-century lighthouse keepers. Left alone for weeks on a mysterious island, resentments and hallucinations boil over in a cabin feveresque spiral. There's ample opportunity for Dafoe and Pattinson to chew the scenery, and Eggers roils us in every miserable bit of their sodden, cramped existences. The 1.19 aspect ratio makes the screen almost square, enhancing the claustrophobia we feel in their quarters and in their souls. When Winslow first climbs the stairs to their shared bedroom, he bonks his head on a ceiling, reminding us tactilely of that crampedness. The ratio with the harsh lighting hearkens The Lighthouse back to German silent film days.
The harsh lighting causes eerie shadows and sharp planes on the actors' faces, living as they do by the light of one burning bulb between them. It's likely the first movie you've seen with Pattinson where he won't look pasty. But the silent film vibes actually tend to remove us from the subject matter. Eggers has an eye for period detail, having even built and sewn all the clothes for The Witch. If he could, he'd probably jam Dafoe and Pattinson's hands into age-appropriate dirt to get the right look for the grime underneath their fingernails. Similar to The Witch, he pulls language and dialogue from the period, turning to nineteenth-century writers Herman Melville and Sarah Orne Jewett for inspiration. Although we can certainly appreciate his appreciation for veracity, the period-accurate language and heavy accents can be hard to decipher at times, and arguably take us more out of the film than into it.
The Lighthouse does the best when it's being uncompromisingly surreal. Eggers throws mythical allusions here and there, from sailor omens to Greek motifs. Wake and Winslow start to meld together in a weird way as they descend into kerosene-fumed madness and resentment. It's like a briny, machismo version of Persona, where two men are trapped with each other in the phallic symbol of the lighthouse. Wake is possessive of the lighthouse, calling it a "she" and not allowing Winslow take care of it. Some of The Lighthouse's prettiest scenes, free of grime and the weather lacerations are of the lighthouse itself and the power it exudes. Wake and Winslow's conversations mention other women from time to time, although Winslow certainly shows more than an implication of a sexual frustration outside of those mentions.
Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke used older Panavision lenses from the early twentieth century to achieve The Lighthouse's old-timey look. Although they used Kodak's Double-X film, they filtered it to create the orthochromatic look of old film, with a harsher contrast and grain. The Lighthouse is certainly awash in spectacular shots, ranging from the expertly framed to the bleak. But there's a remove from the film, much like watching an older silent film. Dafoe and Pattinson are excellent, snarling their way through their lines; Dafoe spews monologues as if Shakespeare were a peg-legged sea captain and Pattinson probably sweats and physically agonizes more here than all his other movies combined, but there's rarely a moment when you're not aware that they are Dafoe and Pattinson. There's a dream-like quality to much of the story with its surreal logic, but the repetitiveness wears and the film feels much longer than its runtime. It's an impressive film to look at, with numerous striking shots, but you're not left grasping much at the end. The Lighthouse is a film you end up wanting to like more than you actually do, but it's an admirable outing for Eggers all the same. However, it might be better to pass on its sailor slop and poorly cooked lobster to live deliciously and rewatch The Witch.