(director/writer: Robert Eggers; screenwriter: Max Eggers; cinematographer: Jarin Blaschke; editor: Louise Ford; music: Mark Korven; cast: Willem Dafoe (Thomas Wake), Robert Pattinson (Ephraim Winslow), Valeriia Karaman (Mermaid); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Rodrigo Teixeira/Jay Van Hoy/Robert Eggers/Lourenço Sant’ Anna/Youree Henley; A24; 2019-b/w)

“Mesmerizing, intense and disturbing arthouse psychological black and white horror pic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Visionary director Robert Eggers (“The Witch”) co-wrote the eccentric screenplay for this mesmerizing, intense and disturbing arthouse psychological black and white horror pic with brother Max.The crisp old-fashioned dialogue could have been lifted out of a Herman Melville sea novel. It’s set on a mysterious, desolate and remote New England island in the 1890s, where two lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), try to stay sane faced with solitude, bad thoughts and nightmares.

Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shot it in a luminous black and white on 35 mm film in a nearly square aspect ratio.

Ephraim is a drifter and an ex-logger, arriving on the Maine island from Canada with a shady past. He is the young new assistant lighthouse keeper. His boss is the ornery, peg-legged, Thomas, the clay pipe smoking rugged old salt, with a gift for reciting at will ancient sea shanties and being long-winded. The two will share a bedroom and work duties, as Ephraim is assigned to be here for what seems to be an interminable four-week period.

During the day Ephraim is assigned by the boss various manual tasks that keep him working hard. He thinks he’s unfairly treated, as he regularly receives tongue lashings from the boss who considers him lazy, inexperienced and with a bad attitude. At night, during dinner, the taskmaster Thomas becomes a garrulous and cordial alcoholic who supplies the liquor both men drink in a dank room lit only by candle-light, as they battle it out verbally over their tenuous and uneasy relationship.The younger man (from whose P.O.V. the story is told) reacts unfavorably to doing all the hard work he is assigned, calling it an abuse of power and rebukes the older man for taking only the soft task of retreating at night to the lighthouse tower to be on the post where the light-beam emanates from. The embittered newcomer wants to be boss and doesn’t accept the old man’s explanations for how he assigns the work.

What seems odd is that the boss keeps the top-floor beacon locked up tight and will not allow his assistant to go up there. Another oddity is a seagull that confronts Ephraim and won’t leave him alone, as Thomas believes these birds might hold the spirits of dead seamen.

In what seem like a dream-like sequence, the only other character in the film appears envisioned by both men as a flirty, buxom mermaid (Valeriia Karaman).

When the claustrophobia becomes unbearable, along with the strain of living in such oppressive isolation with the only other person there being someone not liked, and the men are further vexed by the soul piercing sounds of the foghorn blasts, both find that their mental condition deteriorates as rationality becomes too fuzzy to comprehend and the descent into madness is complete.

It’s skillfully directed, wonderfully acted, visually arresting, laced at times with sidesplitting humor and is rich in hellish atmosphere. This is a film that only gets better and more meaningful with repeated viewings.

REVIEWED ON 10/18/2019       GRADE: A