Hunting for Freudian symbolism in movies is, I think, almost never a rewarding pursuit, but sometimes you just have to admit when a film slaps you in the face with its enormous engorged cock. And so it is with The Lighthouse, whose titular location is a giant erection of white stone that is routinely framed to look as phallic as possible, with at least one instance of the editing moving us between the lighthouse and a character's crotch such that you couldn't possibly miss it no matter how hard you tried. And this is even without finding that director Robert Eggers, who also co-wrote the script with his brother Max, has openly urged us towards that reading, suggesting that the film is a cautionary tale about what befalls two men trapped alone in a giant phallus.

That's all unbearably precious and what not, but The Lighthouse has the good grace to have a sense of humor about it. It has a sense of humor about a lot of things, in fact, which I certainly did not expect; Eggers's first feature, the exquisite 2015 period horror film The Witch, has a few brittle, black-hearted jokes, but it's pretty vigorously serious otherwise, and The Lighthouse is much further along the road to full-on art cinema than that was. And yet, it's perfectly okay with being, dare I say it, silly: there's a sense of the ludicrous threaded throughout, in the heightened style of the cinematography, staging, and acting. There's also a running motif of fart jokes, the sure sign of a savagely icy art film. And the fart jokes culminate in, or at least echoed by, a shit joke that's even more juvenile and gross (and, to be fair, funny). On top of the inherent silliness in a psychological thriller that starts from "lighthouses sure do look like dicks, huh?"

The film takes place in an unnamed but very New England-looking place (it was shot in Nova Scotia), on a small rocky island that's empty except for the aforementioned lighthouse and the two men operating it for a multi-month stint near the start of the storm season: inordinately grizzled veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and first-timer Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). I am tempted to suppose that there is no other plot synopsis necessary. Wake is a colorful zany with an authoritarian streak who forces Winslow to do all the necessary menial jobs, and Winslow starts to go insane from boredom, literally. The two men start in a place of wariness around each other - Winslow obviously the more reserved of the pair - and descend into active hostility tinged with homoeroticism as the days drag on and the awful, unending wind churns up the sea so badly that it looks like they might be forced to stay on the island longer than their assigned term.

There's a lot that this could be about (the cruelty of males fighting for power over each other, the terror of isolation, traditionalism versus modernism, maybe repressed gay desire), but more than most films, The Lighthouse is letting its "how" take the lead over its "what" (Eggers has claimed the "what" is a variation on the Prometheus myth, and I can see the evidence, especially in the astounding final shot, but it's much more explicitly a quasi-adaptation of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", with a man driven to extreme despair for the crime of killing a sea bird). We can make guesses about what, exactly, is fucking up both of these men's heads, but we can never doubt even a little bit that their heads are pretty thoroughly fucked up. This is one of those films that dedicates itself to realising a subjective psychological state through a heavily stylised aesthetic, so subjective that I honestly can't tell you, at least not after one viewing, what percentage of the film's plot "actually" takes place, beyond "probably not all of it". This is a fantastic portrayal of being driven slowly and steadily mad, using every possible aspect of the filmmaker's craft to yoke us inside Winslow's deteriorating brain. But that's not all it's doing. It also feels bizarrely classical; I am going to use Ephraim Winslow's name as a license to assume that the film actively meant for me to spend much of the running time thinking of Winslow Homer, the American painter whose dynamic oil impressions of activity at sea feel like a major inspiration on The Lighthouse's stately compositions of wind, rock, desperately empty white skies, and the lighthouse towering above it all. This impression is helped out a lot by the film's unusual aspect ratio: 1.19:1, the boxy frame of very early sound-on-film movies from the tail end of the 1920s and the very beginning of the 1930s. That's not the time frame of the movie (the year isn't specified any more than the place, but I'd guess the 1890s if you made me), and the lifespan of that aspect ratio was far too short to pretend like The Lighthouse is trying to call back to any particular tradition of filmmaking. Instead, the ratio seems to be about getting towards something that feels clearly archaic, a not-quite-square that feels vaguely like it might have worked in painting but clearly reads as all wrong for a movie.

At the same time, the aspect ratio is very much part of the expressive work that the film is doing in plunging us into Winslow's mental collapse. It's not being used to suggest a form of claustrophobia, the way that e.g. Kelly Reichardt has used the somewhat wider and much more standard 1.37:1 frame; but it is being used to box the characters in and focus our attention - especially to focus our attention on Dafoe's face, which all by its lonesome has to qualify as one of the most astounding visual feats of 2010s cinema. I do not know if make-up was involved in aging the skin of an already somewhat weathered 63-year-old, or if we owe it all to Jarin Blaschke's harsh, luxuriously filmic black-and-white cinematography, which uses high-contrast interiors and foggy exterior greyscapes to create one of modern cinema's most effective successors to German Expressionism, and especially carves out every line on Dafoe's face like a chasm. Meanwhile, Blaschke and Eggers give the actor one magnificent close-up and medium close-up after another, while Dafoe himself delivers lines in a deranged cartoon character accent that's impossible to ignore for even one word of his sing-songy, meandering dialogue. Pattinson doesn't get a chance to compete: he has shorter takes from less dramatic angles and with less penetrating shot scales, and the lighting is typically flatter. That's the point, to a large extent: the film is all about Winslow being infuriated, repulsed, and overwhelmed by Wake's crushing force of personality, and the way that the filmmaking and acting reinforces our sense of Dafoe's absolutely ownership of the film is basically just giving that an aesthetic dimension.

The other thing it's about, maybe even more than that, is the punishing loneliness of life on a rock in the chilly north Atlantic. The Lighthouse has some ridiculously good wind on the soundtrack, slicing across the daytime exteriors with an all-encompassing mix of pitches, and then rattling irritably in the bass during the nighttime moments inside. Add to that Mark Korven tuneless music, tetchy and atmospheric by turns, and we have a genuinely distressing soundtrack, aggressively smacking at the viewer's eardrums for damn near every single moment of the feature. Much more than the surreal events of the plot, or the painterly grotesques of the images, it's the sound that makes The Lighthouse psychological horror and not just a dynamic collection of bizarre anecdotes and weird fantasy. It is an unrelenting soundscape, and it does terrific work in creating space for the rest of the film to work its hallucinatory magic.