Robert Eggers' Stormy Horror 'The Lighthouse' Is Cannes' Most Terrifying Movie

the lighthouse

For more Cannes 2019 coverage, read about our favorite movies of the festival.

Robert Eggers loves language. Specifically, he loves historically accurate, stick-in-your-mouth, crusty, rumbly, archaic language -- the kind of stuff you only read in Herman Melville books or hear in period movies. Eggers' newest nightmare, The Lighthouse, is set off the wind-torn coast of early 20th century Maine, on a small, wet island populated by a young man, an old man, and a lighthouse. I was lucky enough to go into The Lighthouse knowing nothing of what it was about, and I'm going to do my best not to spoil the most electrifyingly scary movie of the Cannes Film Festival.

Robert Pattinson plays Ephraim Winslow, a young man who sails out to a remote island to start his new job: for a month, he'll help the island's aging lighthouse keeper, Thomas (a crusty, beardy Willem Dafoe), keep the light going strong. Rain and storms beat at their cabin's windows and walls, and Winslow quickly finds out that keeping a lighthouse is a miserable business. It doesn't help that his boss has a quick temper and a controlling attitude, driving Winslow to work long, exhausting hours doing increasingly difficult tasks. It also doesn't help that something seems to have… happened to Thomas' last assistant. Plus, Winslow keeps having these weird, terror-filled dreams.

The film is shot entirely in black and white, in a classic square (1.19:1) aspect ratio favored by the German Expressionists (both M and The Blue Angel were shot that way), so it immediately calls to mind a certain old-style, claustrophobic mood as soon as the screen closes in on itself. Eggers said during a Q&A after the film's Directors' Fortnight screening that he even used a special filter to give it an aged, stark look. It really works: if not for Pattinson and Dafoe being two of the world's most recognizable working actors, I would believe this could be some recently unearthed treasure from an earlier era of filmmaking.

The meaty dialogue also helps with that. Where The Witch was all about the "sayeths" and the "wouldsts" and the "thous," The Lighthouse digs deep into the droning dialect of the old-style sailors, that salty drawl that calls to mind sea spray and tarry ropes and slapping sails. Dafoe is in his very element in this movie, starting every meal off with an intonation, "Should pale death with treble dread..." He even has an enormous speech halfway through that sounds like something Captain Ahab would yell at his cursed whale. Pattinson rises to the occasion, too, spitting archaic things like, "Bark, you dog!" and, "You get some peart out of molestin' me!"

It's hilarious how much Eggers loves to force his actors to converse in some of the most convoluted ways of speaking English we could ever hear. It's a credit to him, and to the actors, that there's never a moment in this movie that's hard to follow -- mostly because half of the weight is shouldered by its amazing visuals and bone-chilling sound design. The slowly-rotating lighthouse lamp casts gorgeous shadows and brilliant spotlights onto the film's players, and the ever-present foghorn booms steadily into the dark rainy nights.

When The Lighthouse finally gets down to the terror part, a swift descent into utter madness, not a beat is missed. As with The Witch, it's the most mundane things that become the most unsettling: the beady eye of a seagull, a rock formation, a hole in the ground, the constant clanging and chuffing of the lighthouse's hungry clockwork engine.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.