New England, 1890’s
Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) , a veteran, and Efraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a newbie, are lighthouse keepers off the coast of 1890s New England. When their shift there is almost over, a storm hits the island meaning that their ride back to the mainland will never arrive. We immediately sense the tension and it is going to get very ugly, very quickly. Wake never misses a chance to put Winslow down. When the men get stuck, their supplies of food and alcohol begin to dwindle and they begin to lose their minds and go out of control.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke gives the movie a sense of the time in which it is set and what you see on the screen stays with you for a long time afterwards. Director Robert Eggers and his brother, Max, co-wrote the eccentric screenplay making the film mesmerizing, intense and disturbing. It’s set on a mysterious, desolate and remote New England island in the 1890s, where the two lighthouse keepers try to stay sane faced with solitude, bad thoughts and nightmares.
Ephraim is a drifter and an ex-logger who has arrived on island from Canada along with his shady past. He is the young new assistant lighthouse keeper and his boss is an ornery, peg-legged, clay pipe smoking rugged old salt, with the ability to recite ancient sea shanties at will. The two share a bedroom and work duties, as Ephraim is assigned to be here for what seems to be an interminable four-week period.
During the day Ephraim is assigned to various manual tasks that keep him working hard. He thinks he’s unfairly treated, as he regularly receives harsh criticism from the boss who considers him lazy, inexperienced and with a bad attitude. At night, during dinner, the taskmaster Thomas becomes both a garrulous and cordial alcoholic who supplies the liquor both men drink in a dank room with just a candle for light. They battle it out verbally and share a tenuous and uneasy relationship. The younger man (from whose P.O.V. the story is told) reacts unfavorably to doing all the hard work he is assigned, calling it an abuse of power and rebukes the older man for taking only the soft job of retreating at night to the lighthouse tower to be on the post. Ephraim wants to be boss and doesn’t accept the old man’s explanations for how he assigns the tasks he is to perform.
Wake keeps the top-floor beacon locked up tight and will not allow Ephraim to go up there. In what seem like a dream-like sequence, the only other character in the film appears envisioned by both men as a flirty and buxom mermaid (Valeriia Karaman).
The claustrophobia becomes unbearable, along with the strain of living in such isolation with the only other person there being someone not liked. The men are further vexed by the soul piercing sounds of the foghorn blasts and both find that their mental condition deteriorating as rationality turns into a descent into madness.
It’s skillfully directed, beautifully acted, a visual feat with sidesplitting humor in a hellish atmosphere. The film actually gets better and more meaningful with repeated viewings. The mood is generated by the psychological impact of isolation and the atmosphere is oppressive from the start. Filmed in stark black and white, it takes a few minutes to tune in to the archaic language both the men use, representative of turn of the century northern American. The silence has more to say that anything else.