Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse,” set on the coast of Maine.  Photos courtesy of A24 Films

My parents live on a cliff over which you can see Seguin Light. From a distance, the 18th century lighthouse is one of those picturesque postcard images of Maine beloved of tourism websites and calendar-makers everywhere. Getting closer – as my dad and I did in his father’s tinny little motorboat once a long, long time ago – reveals just how forbidding and unsettling the places at the end of the world, where humankind puts its last beacons of civilization, are.

Roaring waves, even on the calmest day, batter the lonely stone, and the wind off the ocean seems poised to topple the light tower and lightkeeper’s lodging like a child’s matchstick house. With the squalling, indefatigable gulls wheeling around the tower’s central spire, it’s all too clear that such isolated places are not meant for us.

The beacon at the center of director Robert Eggers’ new horror film “The Lighthouse” is a mysterious and ultimately terrifying place, mostly because of how this striking and disturbing movie’s terrors seem so deeply rooted in the very stones of its setting off the rugged Maine coast. The film, about a pair of mismatched lighthouse keepers on the cusp of the 20th century, was shot at a suitable lighthouse in Nova Scotia, but we’ll let that go. Composed of tight closeups alternating with expansive but constricted views of the weather-whipped ocean surrounding the two men as they spend months alone tending the light, the film could be in Maine just as well, or anywhere else where foolhardy people choose to live in the coldest, hardest, most vulnerable reaches of their lands.

Starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson (now established as an Oscar-worthy actor far, far removed from “Twilight”), “The Lighthouse” is Eggers’ second foray into period New England horror, after 2015’s similarly enigmatic and effective “The Witch.” Written with his brother Max, New Hampshire native Eggers’ film is, on one hand, a startlingly bleak historical character study. As old salt Defoe and first-time apprentice Pattinson settle almost wordlessly into the backbreaking routine required to keep the lighthouse lit, and themselves alive on their temporary island home, the film is, at times, like a lost documentary of seemingly impossible hardship. Eggers shoots in black-and-white, and the chosen, nearly square aspect ratio makes every frame look like a ragged period photograph, the cramped and restricted frame consciously compressing the contentious men’s isolation even further.

Sometimes friends, sometimes foes, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse.”

But, as in “The Witch,” small details begin to hint at deeper, darker secrets and perils lurking in the Maine darkness, such as an unexplained whalebone figurine, found in an unexpected place; and glimpses of Dafoe’s growling, drunken keeper – who will not let neophyte Pattinson into the locked top of the light tower – stripped naked, staring straight into the impossibly bright beacon’s light. Late-night grumbled details of their different pasts suggest things about each man are not what they appear, and Dafoe – becoming expansive in the dark, drunken nights – explains how his previous assistant died on the tiny island, after going mad and ranting about the things out there in the inky depths and the windy night.

Also like “The Witch,” “The Lighthouse” resists easy jump scares and pat answers, perhaps even more so. Eggers deals – in his stark black-and white palette – in imagery and echoes. For horror enthusiasts in the know, there are shadows of “The Birds” (there’s a one-eyed seagull who should get an honorary Oscar), “The Shining,” the slimy, unknowable terrors of H.P. Lovecraft, and the scariest seafaring tales told by the crustiest old sailors. As the story roars to its deeply puzzling, nerve-shredding conclusion, Eggers’ stark black-and-white imagery takes on an abstract tone that fans of David Lynch will recognize all too well. As the men’s predicament worsens – Pattinson’s expected relief ship never comes, water spoils almost every foodstuff except a buried cache of booze – their already frayed relationship (they never could stand each other at the best of times) turns to drunken camaraderie, unspoken desires and, ultimately, madness and violence. Meanwhile, an unexpected Nor’easter howls, biblical waves crash on all sides of their leaky, shivering lodging, and Pattinson’s troubled former lumberjack finds his fevered nightmares of the sea and what might live in it seemingly crossing over into this world.

That all being said, Pattinson and Dafoe take turns making “The Lighthouse” unaccountably funny at times, their growling, pressurized dislike striking sparks of begrudging necessary comradeship as they – aided by Dafoe’s stash of liquor – squabble and roar at each other like a pair of mangy mutts stuffed into the same crate. Dafoe has one extended monologue as epic as any of King Lear’s, his towering, lightning-punctuated malediction going on and on in awe-inspiring majesty until it seems he’ll be the thing that blows the keepers’ house down. The fact that it’s all in response to Pattinson’s seemingly inconsequential remark about Dafoe’s cooking just makes it that much more inexplicably thrilling in its rage. Eggers has said of what transpires in his film, “Nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus,” which about encapsulates the riveting, queasy mix of unease, dark comedy, sheer horror and, ultimately, gory violence that is “The Lighthouse.” A two-man tour de force, the film deliberately – even perversely – resists attempts to decode it. Like staring at a Maine lighthouse from the farcical safety of your grandfather’s suddenly tiny-seeming dinghy, the possibly imagined terrors of “The Lighthouse” just seep into your bones as you watch it.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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