The Lighthouse **1/2

It's a good thing Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson deliver indelible performances in this aggressively foreboding chiller, because “The Witch” director Robert Eggers tries so hard to channel Melville and Lovecraft that he loses his grip on the material. Still, this portrait of toxic masculinity, set in the late 1800s, merits a look for its dreamlike imagery and gripping first hour.

Is it worth $10? Yes

At first you might think the horn belongs to an outgoing ship. Yet it remains, an oppressive bleating that underlines a barren landscape and miserable work conditions. Such is the sorry welcome Ephraim Winslow receives when he arrives at his new post: ensuring seafaring folk don't crash into an isolated island. And then it dawns on you that the engulfing sound he hears belongs to the lighthouse. But is it a beckoning call or a dire warning?

The words “New England” are never uttered, but “The Lighthouse,” director Robert Eggers' atmospheric follow-up to “The Witch,” lives and breathes New England. Its desolate setting, a blistering scab of a land formation, threatens to swallow its inhabitants along with the secrets they keep. It's a mighty adversity that becomes a trying ordeal, for Winslow and the audience.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Winslow (Robert Pattinson, in fine form), young, quiet and inquisitive, reluctantly attempts to acclimate himself to his new post, as well as his verbose, short-tempered and malodorous superior, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe, firing on all cylinders). Anyone who's had a boss like Wake, nosy and secretive in equal measures, particularly in close quarters, will relate to the halting, tentative dynamic that takes shape between the two men as Winslow begins to serve a four-week contract job in the middle of nowhere.

Eggers wisely chooses to dole out any supernatural elements gradually, initially focusing his grim (though sadly not Grimm enough) tale on Winslow's daily tasks, at least when he's not being pestered by an annoying seagull who has decided to pick on him, much like that pigeon on the ledge in “Stephen's King's Cat's Eye.” The keeper's back-breaking work includes carrying kerosene containers up the spiral staircase, up near the top of the phallic beacon. Ah, but not at the very top, where that powerful light beams. Wake keeps it off limits under lock and key. Naturally, this sparks his employee's curiosity. It doesn't take long for Winslow to catch a glimpse of Wake standing before the light, in the middle of the night, arms widespread. Stark naked.

Up to this point, Eggers displays commendable control of his narrative and production values. Bold aesthetic choices, like Jarin Blaschke's boxy, saturated black and white photography and Mark Korven's eerie music score, mesh well with his mix of campfire-tale dread and the kind of deadpan humor that recalls early Jarmusch and the Coens. Naked Willem Dafoe turns out to be as much of a harbinger of things to come as the wooden figurine of a mermaid Winslow finds hidden inside his cot. Eggers, who heavily channels Herman Melville and, to a lesser extent, H.P Lovecraft, allows sexual tension to hang in the air like the foul stench of one of Wake's farts. It peeks in every time the men bond, and it's a conspicuous elephant in the room every time they bicker.

“The Lighthouse” is at its most compelling when it likens the keepers' battle of wills into a contest for supremacy, two sperms' battle to reach the blissful release promised at the top of this treacherous phallus. Eggers intuits he doesn't need a rigid chain of incidents to allow the story to flow. And so when inclement weather threatens to leave the duo stranded, the turn of events takes a back seat to the shifting power dynamic between the keepers. Good call.

Alas, Eggers just can't get out of his own way. As the men find themselves alone together for longer than anticipated, their alcohol-fueled revelry sends them on a downward spiral where their grasp on reality begins to erode. But instead of sticking to the tight mise en scene that kept this critic riveted to his seat, Eggers feels compelled to convey Winslow and Wake's descent into madness by pulling out all the stops. Wake's ornate soliloquies, which initially come across as thrilling high-wire acts, become grating and tiresome. (It certainly doesn't help that it's sometimes difficult to make out what Dafoe is saying.) Increasingly outrageous behavior from both men, which appears to give “The Lighthouse” the feel of Bergman's “Persona” on acid, begins to feel like a chore. As a result, what starts out as a seductive siren's call devolves into a prolonged, ungainly cockfight. When Winslow starts seeing other people when he looks at Wake, the moment doesn't feel far removed from cartoons where castaways look at others and see a sirloin steak or a burger.

A similar overreach also hampered the “The Witch,” or, in its more period-accurate spelling, “The VVitch,” an otherwise arresting colonial folk tale that harnesses the destructive (and liberating) power of evil in its portrayal of an outcast family's disintegration. It also resorts to schlocky genre flourishes when its suggestive dark spaces were menacing enough. But that film's payoff felt visceral and cathartic. By contrast, when “The Lighthouse” comes to a head, it feels muddled and anticlimactic, its moments of mayhem tossed in as part of an ongoing endurance test. At 109 minutes, this is a mystical yarn that could have been trimmed by at least 15 minutes, which would have made its ending feel that much more like a gallows punch line.

And yet, there's a bracing purity to Eggers' commitment. He finds in Pattinson and Dafoe two willing vessels to bring this tale of distrust and inner demons to vivid, occasionally unnerving life. Its disquieting take on cabin fever burrows under the skin and crawls into your nightmares.

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