Over the last few years, several debut films have been released within the completely arbitrary confines of what some were calling “elevated horror,” a marketing term gone awry denoting a lowbrow genre being served on a silver platter for highbrow consumption. This year has seen follow-up projects from the filmmakers behind that wave and while Ari Aster, Jordan Peele and Jennifer Kent all swung for the fences with their sophomore efforts, The Witch director Robert Eggers has gone in another direction for his exemplary new film, The Lighthouse.

Films like Midsommar, Us and The Nightingale expanded on the scope and ambition of each director’s debut works, but Eggers focuses his gaze even tighter this time out, with a peculiar and disturbing two-hander about lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his new assistant Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). The film follows the two men as they work completely alone, their animosity towards one another ebbing and flowing like the tides, and their tethers to reality fraying exponentially. The result is a tight and well-composed psychological study on masculinity, labor and the effects of isolation on one’s sanity.

Unlike other films focusing on only two actors, The Lighthouse never has that lazy, talky theatricality to it one might anticipate. This isn’t a wide frame with complex staging and two actors trading monologues back and forth. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shot the film in black and white, using a tall, squarish 1.19:1 aspect ratio that compresses the space around its two leads, all while accentuating the lighthouse itself. The result is a claustrophobic film that leaves the viewer feeling as trapped as its protagonists.

Structurally, the film is a marvel, taking its first half to establish a tiresome routine, building the tension tighter and tighter until it seems less and less likely Wake and Winslow will be able to make it the end of Winslow’s tenure without severe violence. But around the midway mark, the plot throws another wrench into the works, which is where the narrative comes completely unglued, with more frenetic editing, haunting visions and no way to tell what is a seaside hallucination and what is actually supernatural in nature.

Of course, whether or not what Wake, Winslow and the viewer see is real or imagined is almost irrelevant. It’s not particularly important if The Lighthouse is a psychological thriller that transforms into a fantastical horror exercise, or a fantastical horror film manifesting as a character study. It’s in the impressive way Eggers takes such a simple tale and a pair of game actors to create such an engrossing viewing experience, one that runs the gamut from gut-busting comedy to mesmerizing psychedelia and cringe-inducing horror. He’s able to plumb depths through these two men trapped together that ring truer than some of the more ambitious and sprawling efforts of his contemporaries.

Dafoe is an absolute madman in his role, chewing on stylized sea captain dialogue and shouting so loud the veins in his neck appear ready to burst, but Pattinson is every inch his equal, holding his own with the veteran and stealing plenty of scenes. In acting out this young man new to the sea life and losing his entire goddamn mind, Pattinson distills all the range he’s been showing in his post-Twilight career into one convenient demo reel for all the haters confused by him being the new Batman. It’s as difficult to imagine an Oscar telecast where neither man is nominated for their work here as it is to figure out which of the film’s many absurdist and over-the-top moments could reasonably fit into the little “for your consideration” spot before the award is presented.

Eggers is having such a blast employing old silent film techniques and finding new textures in old settings that one hopes he stays in this new lane he’s carved for himself, telling tales set as far away from modernity as possible. Let his peers scour the present; The Lighthouse proves there’s still fertile ground in the past for Eggers to explore.

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