Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (Photo: A24)

★★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Robert Eggers
STARS Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

Film fans fondly recall how Michael Caine and Gene Hackman were seemingly everywhere in the 1980s, making movie after movie and never coming up for air (although definitely coming up for paychecks). Is Willem Dafoe the current answer to these cinematic workaholics? The actor has appeared in a staggering 18 films in just the past four years, with another seven in various stages of pre- and post-production. He can currently be seen in a supporting role in Motherless Brooklyn, but he shares the main stage in the two-man show The Lighthouse, an artful and unsettling drama from the director of The Witch.

If The Witch showed that writer-director Robert Eggers was a filmmaker worth watching, then this second effort demonstrates that all eyes should remain transfixed on his career, at least for the immediate future. The Lighthouse defies easy description, as it’s a black-and-white mood piece in which two men frequently talk while sitting at the dinner table. That might make this sound like My Dinner with Andre, except that art-house hit inexplicably didn’t make room for a mermaid in its tale.

There’s possibly a touch of dementia in Dafoe’s character of Thomas Wake, who has spent years taking care of a lighthouse off the coast of 19th century New England. Certainly, there’s a bit of Robert Shaw in his portrayal, as his constant barking and carousing stirs memories of Jaws’ garrulous Quint. Here, his tirades are directed at the new kid on the rock, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson in a superb performance that should finally shut up all Twilight detractors). Wake isn’t a generally nice person when sober, only to turn into a mean drunk — quite the opposite. He’s tyrannical and insulting toward Winslow when on the job (“You work too slow. You a dullard?”) but opens up when inebriated.

Theirs is a testy relationship, but that’s only a fraction of the story. Winslow sees mermaids and tentacles when hallucinating (or is he?), while Wake is definitely up to something when he strips off his clothes and barricades himself at the top of the lighthouse. There’s also a homage of sorts to Robert Aldrich’s classic noir nastiness Kiss Me Deadly, as well as a one-eyed seagull that could easily have joined the ranks of Hitchcock’s birds.

The Lighthouse is the sort of picture that will baffle some and dazzle others, but those who can get on its wavelength will find it a shining beacon of originality in a cinematic landscape of sameness.

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