This review was originally published during 2019’s Cannes Film Festival. We are republishing the piece as the film hits theaters this weekend.
Early-morning screenings at Cannes are often experienced on only three or four hours of sleep — rough viewing for most films, but probably the ideal state of mind for watching The Lighthouse. Robert Eggers’s follow-up to The Witch stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as lighthouse keepers (or wickies, in the film’s era-appropriate parlance) on a desolate North Atlantic island around the turn of the 20th century. It’s a “crusty, dusty, rusty, musty” existence, as Eggers put it afterward, and it gets even worse once a raging storm hits.
As the two salty dogs slowly succumb to madness, The Lighthouse sees Eggers continue what’s become his signature blend of exhaustively researched period detail — it was shot in a square aspect ratio, with a filter that evokes the look of early silent film — and incredibly unsettling imagery. In fact, it might be even trippier than The Witch. What’s the weirdest part of this incredibly weird film? After the film’s Cannes premiere, we picked ourselves up off the floor to run down the contenders.
(Light spoilers follow.)
Rachel Handler: Where to begin? Could it have been the two-minute scene of Robert Pattinson beating a seagull to death with his bare hands? The scene is the conclusion of a dramatic arc for this particular seagull, who has been tormenting Pattinson for the entire first half of the film: He lands in front of a shed, cawing and blocking Pattinson’s way until Pattinson hurls a rock at him; he taps aggressively on Pattinson’s window while he’s trying to sleep; and ultimately, he stands over the bloody carcass of another seagull comrade, bleating, until Pattinson can no longer take it. He grabs that seagull by the neck and slams it repeatedly into a concrete slab, until the bird is reduced to a string of feathers. I laughed out loud.
Nate Jones: The seagulls do a lot of weird shit, for sure. After this and The Witch, it seems clear that Eggers has a very particular fear of being pecked by a bird, and he’s out to impart that fear to arthouse audiences all over the globe. (For his own sake, I hope he does not watch Bull, in which drunken high-schoolers strip down to their underwear, then sprinkle chicken feed all over their crotches.)
But I want to speak up for the film’s copiuous scenes of intense masturbation, most of which are inspired by material you and I would not recognize as pornography, namely a mermaid figurine and the lighthouse itself. This latter scene takes place while Pattinson is spying on Dafoe from below, which means it climaxes with the younger actor dodging a dripping gush of semen — which, after the Chinese competition title The Wild Goose Lake, makes two surprise cum shots in two days for me.
RH: Pattinson’s entire performance is absolutely wild. It reminds me of Jack Nicholson in The Shining — ax wielding included! Pattinson starts the movie out quiet, stoic, in his classic Mysterious Mode, dutifully hurling buckets of shit into the ocean, scrubbing the floors, and pushing wheelbarrows full of coal across precarious rocks. But slowly, he starts to turn. He begins chugging liquor directly from the bottle on the job. He masturbates with increasing fury, eventually ending up half-naked on the shanty floor, sobbing. Time loses meaning; he punches his fist through a clock. Chunks of vomit litter his once-debonair moustache. During one particularly drunken evening, he screams at Dafoe about how badly he wants meat. “If I had a steak right now,” he yells, “I would fuck it!” (This line absolutely brought the house down.) He slow dances intimately with Dafoe, then lambastes him for smelling like “rotten foreskin and jism.” When he finally learns the secret of the lighthouse, he erupts in a feral laugh, his eyes blazing, head tilted so far back you can see every tooth in his mouth. Pattinson has never been so far from Forks, Washington.
NJ: Pattinson is great in this movie, but Dafoe gives him a run for his money in madness. Sporting a maniacal gleam, as well as a beard that makes him look like Van Gogh’s postman, the actor spends the film effluviating all over the place. He’s constantly pissing and shitting and farting, and clearly having the time of his life doing so. (“There were a number of real farts, for sure,” Pattinson revealed in a post-screening Q&A.) Upon hearing that Pattinson doesn’t like his cooking, Dafoe rises up in a passionate monologue condemning his assistant’s soul to the depths of hell, with all the fury of John Brown. (Pattinson’s response got another of our screening’s big laughs.) Near the end, he debases himself in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen onscreen before, and he fully commits to the bit.
RH: We absolutely also need to talk about the scene I saw people buzzing about on Twitter. In the beginning of the movie, Pattinson finds the mermaid figurine stuffed inside his mattress, then dreams of a body floating in the sea. When he storms fully clothed into the water, he sees a beautiful mermaid, who opens her mouth and screeches a haunting scream. Later, deep in the throes of madness, Pattinson spies a woman’s body splayed on the rocks. He rushes toward her, pulling seaweed out of her mouth. Suddenly, shit starts to get creepy (or creepier): Pattinson starts petting the unconscious woman’s face, running his hand down her body, and over her breasts. He traces down her stomach, then screams: Her entire lower body is covered in scales! The mermaid bolts upright with a piercing shriek; when he runs away in terror, she cackles wildly. But the weirdest is yet to come. Furiously masturbating (again), Pattinson fantasizes about having sex with the mermaid, and we get a full-on shot of her … would we call it a mermaid vagina? It looks a lot like a human vagina, except it’s massive and surrounded by scales. Sort of a giant mussel, really. I’m actually relieved to know the answer to my eternal question: How do mermaids have sex?
NJ: I think a mermaid vagina is called a cloaca? But while I agree that the mermaid vagina is probably the weirdest part of The Lighthouse, I don’t want to leave without speaking up for my favorite freaky bit of the movie, which rivals the fish woman’s urogenital opening in trippiness. After Dafoe curses Pattinson, and things go increasingly off the rails, Pattinson begins having visions of Dafoe’s character as Poseidon, god of the sea. It’s unclear if these are just fantasies, or if Dafoe really is the mercurial ocean deity in human form, but either way, we’re treated to multiple images of the four-time* Oscar nominee as a naked Greek god, sometimes accompanied by a squirming mass of tentacles. If that won’t wake you up, nothing will.