The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, is a quiet film with plenty of atmosphere

The Lighthouse (MA15+)

Three stars

This is the second film in about four years to be inspired by the so-called Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy of 1801.

I haven't seen the earlier effort but it is, apparently, more faithful to the real-life events than this film, which is impressively crafted and acted but takes some bizarre turns.

Still from The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Credit: A24 Pictures

Still from The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Credit: A24 Pictures

In the latter part of the 19th century, veteran lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and the much younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattison) are brought together on an isolated island off the coast of New England.

Wake is almost a parody of the salty old sea dog, with big beard, one leg and a manner of speech reminiscent of Robert Newton's Long John Silver.

Dafoe throws himself into the character, unafraid to go big, and makes him mysterious and sinister.

Wakeis a bad tempered authoritarian and more outgoing than the taciturn, heavily moustached Winslow (well played by Pattinson, who's slowly erasing the Twilight stain from his career).

The younger man is landed with the toughest and most unsavoury tasks while Wake reserves working in the top of the lighthouse for himself.

In the lonely, inhospitable and cramped conditions the two eventually develop a bond, of sorts, but it's fragile and dogged by outbreaks of rage and resentment.

And although the men begin to open up to each other somewhat while sharing a drink or two, there's a lot they keep hidden.

Then there is the news that the extreme weather conditions have delayed indefinitely a ship arriving to retrieve Winslow after his four-week contact expires.

Something's got to give.

Co-writer and director Robert Eggers (The Witch) has crafted a good-looking, vivid tale heavy on atmosphere but a little lacking in character development and clarity.

It feels like it should have been a little shorter and more sensational or a bit more fleshed out, but if you like literary and mythological allusions, ambiguity, sexuality, bizarre imagery and discussing "What the hell was that about?" after a screening, this is the movie for you (warning: it does get quite violent and disturbing).

Two things are very quickly striking about The Lighthouse. It's beautifully shot in black and white by cinematographer Jarin Blashcke and its aspect ratio is 1:19.

That's slightly narrower even than the old 1.37:1 that most pre-widescreen Hollywood films were screened in and recalls some of the movies of the late silent era such as Sunrise.

Speaking of silence, for much of this film there's little or no dialogue.

But there's plenty of atmosphere - not just the dark, shadowy look of the film, but the sound effects and ominous score that help create the oppressive, unsettling mood that just keeps building, but not quite to a totally satisfying conclusion.

It's not that some of what transpires late in the film is strange and obscure: more than a little of it verges on the ludicrous.

But there is plenty to ponder afterwards - especially about what might be objectively real and what might be subjective as the men seem to be suffering a bad case of cabin fever.

And it's always good to see an apt, effective use of black and white in contemporary cinema.

This story A moody, thought-provoking film first appeared on The Canberra Times.