In conjuring mood, air and mounting anxiety, ” American writer-director Robert Eggers is a skilful craftsman. After his tight 2015 introduction feature, The Witch, cult indie production firm A24 has given him carte blanche and, to his credit, Eggers has not held back. A spooky, late-Victorian interval piece, taken in black and white on location in Nova Scotia, this two-hander includes Willem Dafoe as bossy, flatulent lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake, and Robert Pattinson because his younger, more taciturn apprentice, Ephraim Winslow. The island’s quirks incorporate disgusting weather, a belligerent seagull, and a stash of kerosene for whenever the rum runs dry.
There are striking particulars and graphics to respect, like the movie’s use of this 1.19:1 Movietone ratio, remembering the square framing of early sound pictures, or Pattinson’s oil-slicked cheekbones blanched to blinding white. Yet increasingly these devices start to feel like specialized exercises which dazzle while obscuring the narrative — or lack thereof. Even the lighthouse itself is a liminal space between sea and land which functions as a sort of purgatory, although the attacking whirr of machines suggests the churning cogs of hell. The story tracks the disintegration of a man’s soul, but Eggers is fascinated in his guts (the movie is ripe with sewer, semen and chamber pots of shit), not his spirit. Frat boy humour is dressed in a costly, arthouse coat.
Dafoe is plausible as a guy dotty with electricity, but Pattinson, regardless of his go-for-broke energy, strains to maintain. The lewd, overwrought, Herman Melville-inspired dialog is mumbled and cried, the extreme, grand guignol performances much more interesting as an experiment