Forget VR, pay no mind to 3-D and don’t even think about introducing a new frame rate — the most immersive film experience of the year can be found in “The Lighthouse,” a throwback black-and-white fever dream, shot in boxy 1.33.1 and filled with arcane lingo delivered with demented glee by Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe and no one else.
A richly textured portrait of two men on the far edges of society intensifying each other’s descent into madness, “The Lighthouse” lulls like a sea song, knocks like a wave and had an absolutely hypnotic effect on audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film made its world premiere as part of the Director’s Fortnight sidebar on Sunday.
The craft is meticulous and the level of detail elaborate, but the story itself is simple as can be. Somewhere off the coast of New England, sometime in the late 19th century, two lighthouse keepers spend a month tending a remote post and lose their bloody minds.
Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) is the more inexperienced of the two. A one-time logger on the run from his past, he is at first a man of very few words. But that’s no matter, because crusty old mariner Tom Wake (Dafoe) is more than happy to fill in any and all dead air with another seafarer’s tale. Wake may be curtly demanding by day, but he opens like a clam once the rum flows — in fact, he’s so generous with sea tales and so stingy with everything else that we don’t learn either character’s name until 30 minutes in.
Working with the same ethnographic impulse that informed his previous film “The Witch,” director Robert Eggers stuffs the film with verbal tics and tall tales of a hyper-specific milieu (one imagines Eggers cracked open his copy of “Moby-Dick” more than a few times), because his devotion to period authenticity includes speech patterns and dialects long gone.
The coarse vulgarities of grunting “wickies” (there’s a word you’ll learn!) can sound awfully alien to modern ears, but the two leads commit so deeply and with such evident joy that their language washes over you like Shakespearean prose, carrying the listener away.
Both Pattinson and Dafoe seem to have a great time — you could not say as much for their characters, I suppose — letting madness take its toll, and both abide by the rule of “go big or go home.” Dafoe carries more of the dialogue for the first half, but Pattinson anchors things with a sturdy physical performance that will no doubt calm those concerned about a certain reported upcoming role.
When he does get to loosen to his tongue, the actor tears into his lines with scenery-chewing glee, at one point delivering an invective- and insult-filled monologue that the Cannes audience greeted with mid-film cheers.
As with most movie about characters going cuckoo, the form follows suit. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s 35mm coal-and-ash lensing grows more expressionistic in shade, the scenes grow more hallucinatory and the film’s rhythm and editing becomes faster and looser, to get us better into the headspace of two men who are drunk out of their minds.
Because the film is tied to Ephraim’s perspective — and by about halfway through, that character ain’t all there upstairs — Eggers effectively gaslights the audience scene after scene, creating contrasts and oppositions between actions and moments we see on screen and the ways our characters describe and react to them.
That technique works all the more because of the film’s mesmerizing aesthetic and tone. Either you have to surrender to “The Lighthouse” right from the beginning or never at all. So when Eggers starts pulling the rug, we fall down with it and start questioning our own minds.
It’s a devious strategy that makes us question the film, but never the filmmaker. On that we can be clear: This guy knows what he’s doing.