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'The Lighthouse': Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson Star in 2019's Weirdest Film

Stellar acting in an epic about 19th-century seamen tormented by mermaids, monsters and their own minds

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 50 minutes

Stars: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman

Director: Robert Eggers

Within minutes, The Lighthouse transports you to the hallucinatory, claustrophobic confines of a lighthouse on a remote island off New England in the late 19th century. As two men, both lighthouse keepers, drive each other to the brink of madness in what amounts to a frenzied and manic fever dream, the audience starts to check its own sanity. At least I did.

It's not just a star turn for Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, 64, who face off as a taciturn newcomer (Pattinson) and a crusty, flatulent, garrulous old seaman (Dafoe) — both arriving for a month-long stint to man the beacon and perform maintenance on the island facilities.

It's also a confident and triumphant second outing for director Robert Eggers, who scored with his breakout 2015 debut, the supernatural horror film The Witch. Eggers cowrote this script with his younger brother Max, and Dafoe's gassiness (which explodes in the first scene) and other highly detailed bodily functions exemplify the black humor that leavens what would otherwise be an unrelentingly tense 110 minutes.

Shot on 35mm black-and-white film with more than a nod to both silent movies and German Expressionism (think The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), The Lighthouse is deceptively timely as well. Dafoe's Thomas Wake is a domineering elder, the 1890 equivalent of a boomer, who orders around Pattinson's moody whippersnapper Efraim Winslow, forcing him to do menial chores and strong-arming him into heavy drink at night. Efraim, who left his last job as a “timberman” under — what else? — mysterious circumstances, needs this job desperately, which leads him to deeply resent the overbearing Thomas.

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As the two men get drawn into an escalating power struggle, their secrets spill like so much 19th century tea. Strange forces (which might be real) surround them, bringing their conflict to a boiling point, as furious as the roiling seas below.

The towering, scenery-eating, clay pipe-smoking performances by Dafoe and Pattinson are complemented by an onslaught of symbolism and archetypes — murdered seagulls, pouty-lipped mermaids, slimy monsters, a mystical, forbidden beacon — straight out of Hitchcock, Sartre, Samuel Beckett and Shakespeare, to name a few.

Eggers challenges your ideas of time, space and the nature of reality.

Have they been there perhaps much longer than a month? Why is Efraim not allowed up to see the light at the top of the titular lighthouse? Are the mermaids real? So many questions. So much paranoia. So much weirdness (including Efraim's furiously erotic mermaid fantasies and Thomas's profane rants about foreskins).

You won't be able to describe this movie to your friends. But you may love it.

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