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Into the Cold, Dark Wilderness

Just three films into his career, Robert Eggers stands as a singular director with a penchant for exacting attention to detail and hard-earned madness

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“What went we out to this wilderness to find?”

These are the first words uttered in Robert Eggers’s debut feature film, The Witch, a line that now reads like a thesis statement for a director whose career feels singular just three films in. None of Eggers’s films takes place any later than the 1890s, and all are rich in the ascetic hardships of people exiled from society and laid low by physical, psychological, and spiritual torments, often of their own making. When William (Ralph Ineson) barks this rhetorical question at the leaders of a Puritan community in 1630s New England, it’s hard to fathom that people who fled England and crossed the sea to practice their faith could be called “false Christians” in a public forum. William is a seeker, willing to put himself and his family through the pain of banishment and isolation in order to get closer to God. He’s also a madman and a fool—but in an Eggers film, there’s scarcely much difference.

For 2015’s The Witch and his 2019 follow-up, The Lighthouse, the 38-year-old filmmaker famously immersed his cast and crew in the muck of his own obsessions, striking out to the hostile climes of northern Ontario and Nova Scotia in a bid to achieve bone-deep authenticity. (The $90 million budget for his new film, the superb Viking adventure The Northman, does not appear to have been spent on creature comforts.) Apart from any of their other qualities, Eggers’s films always strive to re-create a premodern time and place so vividly that they feel three-dimensional, alive with the menacing white noise that seeped through the walls before radios and television could drown it out. Close your eyes and you can hear the howling winds and bleating goats; a braying foghorn that harmonizes with clanking, coal-fired machinery; seagulls that shriek with the cursed souls of dead seamen. Open them and it doesn’t get better.

In Eggers’s first two films especially, there’s such a devotion to meticulous world-building that the director seems almost reluctantly obliged to move the story forward—or, at least, to satisfy whatever preconceived genre expectations an audience might have. The Witch is classified as a horror film, and earns that label through its chilling tale of Calvinist farmers nestled against a forest of Satanic allure. Yet it doesn’t behave like a conventional horror film, always favoring strange and uncanny events over overt shocks, while limiting much of the violence to a family torn asunder by its own lies, repression, and hypocrisy. The Lighthouse exists within an even less identifiable realm, like an experimental staging of Waiting for Godot that cycles through horror, psychodrama, and black comedy. Eggers may have finally given in to something close to a straight-up Viking revenge flick with The Northman, but he doesn’t seem to think about how his films might be tucked into one category or another. And that’s to say nothing of his unsettling payoffs.

What Eggers cares about is obsessive, Kubrickian attention to detail, putting faith in the idea that if he invests enough care in the particularities of language or architecture or costuming, the films will come to life long before the plot asserts itself. Interviews with Eggers tend to focus on his research, with an itemization of all the minutiae he gleaned from looking into a specific era. The Shakespearean language of The Witch, a stylized Early Modern English, was inspired by 17th-century primary sources, as were the hand-stitched and woven garments and the farming techniques. When shooting in New England proved too expensive, Eggers chose an alternative spot in Ontario because it had the tree types he needed. For The Lighthouse, he had a 70-foot working structure built on a godforsaken piece of land on the southern tip of Nova Scotia. The list of influences is long there, too: Jean Grémillon’s 1929 obscurity The Lighthouse Keeper, old code-of-conduct manuals, the region-specific dialect in the work of 19th-century Mainer Sarah Orne Jewett.

The tension in Eggers’s New England in the early 17th and late 19th century comes from the relationship between the hard realities of everyday life and a not-entirely-unjustified belief in folktales and superstitions. When William and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), take their five children—an infant, a young son, fraternal twins of Shining-like uncanniness, and the eldest, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s developing a troublesome curiosity—to a clearing in the wilderness, the idea is to live in stricter accordance with biblical ideals. As their Garden of Eden starts to bear rotten fruit, they’re thrown into a crisis of faith that owes as much to the cold austerity of an Ingmar Bergman drama as it does any shocker about supernatural phenomena. When the youngest child disappears during a peekaboo session with Thomasin, there’s grief over the boy’s certain death, but the real horror is the fact that he hadn’t yet been baptized. They could bear the loss if they weren’t also certain he was going to hell.

Eggers doles out the scares sparingly, just enough for the audience to know that witches do haunt the forest and intend to engulf the family in their gruesome rituals. Even these devout Christians don’t doubt that such forces exist, and suspect Thomasin might be in league with their witchy ways, but Eggers approaches the situation much like Kubrick did in The Shining, seeing these outside stresses in part as a manifestation of deeper problems within the family. Sin trails them like Pig-Pen’s cloud of dirt, and cleansing themselves of it turns into a daily mantra, with William quizzing his eldest son about his “birth sin,” and the boy mechanically reciting words about the “corrupt nature” that dwells within him, imputed by Adam. The infant’s disappearance sows distrust in the family when it should bring unity, and the lies and recriminations spill out from there, as William especially fails to live up to his own standards.

For the Puritans and other settlers, America was a land of freedom and possibility, unspoiled and lush. The Witch is a brilliant countermyth, following the most righteous of families as they carve out their own slice of paradise and yield a bitter harvest in return with rotten corn and eggs, and a Satanic goat known as Black Phillip. It may be just desserts for occupying a land that wasn’t theirs to occupy, or, more likely, a suggestion on Eggers’s part that America wasn’t founded on virtue but corruptibility. Who can blame Thomasin, a virtuous young woman who’s nonetheless targeted for everything that happens, for finding herself susceptible to the devil’s temptations? “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? Wouldst thou like to see the world?” Of course! Point those horns to the nearest pagan ritual, Black Phillip!

Though set almost 300 years later on another barren plot in uppermost New England, The Lighthouse offers a new set of miseries to a pair of cantankerous “wickies” who drink themselves blind while maintaining a lantern on a craggy rock off the Atlantic coast. Eggers again makes salty poetry out of an obscure regional dialect, but the crucial difference here is that it’s often uproariously funny, which helps to counterbalance another heap of terrible misfortune visited upon his characters. No actor has ever looked more in his zone than Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake, a veteran keeper who boozes and farts vigorously when he’s not showering his new assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), with ornate invective. When poor Ephraim gripes about having to swab the unswabbable floors of their living quarters again, Thomas blasts him with an incredible speech about obeying orders, even if that order is “to yank out every single nail from every molderin’ nail-hole and suck off every speck of rust till all them nails sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker.”

For Ephraim, working at the lighthouse quickly turns into a Sisyphean hell of rolling wheelbarrows full of coal up a hill and depositing them in the fiery maw of a furnace, as well as emptying chamber pots, hauling barrels of kerosene, and doing whatever chores Thomas imagines for him. But at least this physical and mental prison comes with a short sentence: In four weeks, he’ll be relieved of duty and move on to the next odd labor. But then he kills one of the gulls that had been pecking at him like he was Tippi Hedren, not realizing that it’s bad luck to kill seabirds, which Thomas claims host the angry souls of departed sailors. Sure enough, the wind shifts and the island is pummeled by a never-ending storm that spoils the food supply and any remaining goodwill between these two men. Ahead lies madness and death, just as it does in The Witch.

Beyond the lead performances, there’s much to savor in how far Eggers and his crew go in creating the world of The Lighthouse, which at times evokes the clanking industrial ambience of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and at others a seafaring adventure without the sea or the adventure. It turns out that Eggers and his brother Max, who cowrote the script, based the action on a real-life incident from the period, but the list of sources is much longer, including an unfinished Edgar Allan Poe short story, nautical dictionaries, and inspirational assists from Robert Louis Stevenson, H.P. Lovecraft, and Samuel Beckett, among others. Eggers’s fussiness over the visual texture of the film also led to the use of century-old camera lenses and a B&W 35mm stock that needed to have a satisfying “grain structure.”

Stripped to its essence, The Lighthouse is mostly a two-hander that could be squeezed onto the tiniest of theatrical stages, but in Eggers’s hands, it’s a feast for the senses, trapping the audience in multiple confinements at once—an island shrouded in fog and pounded by waves and rainstorms, the fart-filled attic of two men condemned to live with each other indefinitely, and Ephraim’s mind, which is sickened by alcohol and troubled by dreams of mermaids, tentacled creatures, and drowning deaths. There’s a spiritual element to The Lighthouse, too, in a lantern room that Ephraim cannot access; Eggers makes it seem like the gates of Heaven, with Thomas as Saint Peter holding the keys to the kingdom. In truth, it’s more like the glowing suitcase in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly or the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a coveted item right up to the moment when somebody cracks it open.

With Eggers dialing the clock back to the first century for The Northman and using another imposing site of human barbarity as his backdrop, he seems to be establishing himself as a master of forgotten, nightmarish realms and the people within who struggled to keep the last flicker of their humanity (and sanity) alive. The Witch and The Lighthouse are also reminders of a spiritual hunger that may take wildly different forms, including a deranged goat. The trick is to figure out the false prophets from the real ones, and which curses, superstitions, and unholy temptations might actually be consequential and life-altering. In Eggers’s mortal pits, sometimes a deal with the devil can’t be signed fast enough.

Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety, and other publications.