Guys. Please. Sweet Mary and Joseph, please! You recommended this movie to me? And I’m just supposed to say – well, Ephraim Winslow has daddy issues, or something, to make sense of this thing??!? Holy cow, woah! The Lighthouse? What the Heck?? I’m so confused. But, I’m going to go fetch my inhaler, find a paper bag to breath into, and a stiff drink. Then, maybe, we might be able to walk through this chaos together. OK. We can do this. WOAH! The Lighthouse? What the Heck??
If you haven’t heard of it, The Lighthouse was written and directed by Robert Eggers… the fellow that brought us really intense little film entitled VVitch (which, I desperately need to do a write up for… sorry gang.) Nothing will prepare you for The Lighthouse. I went in blind and was perpetually wondering what you guys had gotten me into (specifically you Kelley Jo, specifically you!). I was so utterly lost. But if you haven’t seen the film, it tells the story of Ephraim Winslow (played by Robert Pattinson – the swoon worthy Twilight star – who was fantastic in The King) to work a four-week shift out at a lighthouse off the New England coast. His supervisor (and sadist) is named Thomas Wake (played by Willem Dafoe of Murder on the Orient Express, and What Happened to Monday (you thought I was going to say Spiderman??? hahahah.)), and he lives to make Ephraim’s life a living hell. The movie revolves around these two lost souls as we try and figure out what is really going on here. There might be mermaids, killer octopus, demon lights… who knows. And even after watching it, I’m still needing this walk through to put my thoughts together and figure out what I actually think might have happened. Sure, have a trailer, it won’t spoil anything. Heck, watching the movie itself may not even spoil it! hahaha.
Alright Let’s Open This Thing Up And Perform A Postmortem, Shall We???
This thing gets complicated on two different vectors simultaneously. First, nothing we are told is true from the get go. Literally nothing. Practically, these two guys are lying to us on several different fronts simultaneously. Then, the second complication is that this movie might not be about the things that these guys are lying to us about anyway. Wha? Yeah. Practically, this movie might not be telling a story about a lighthouse at all. But, don’t worry, I haven’t formed an opinion on this front yet – I’m just telling you, that’s a possibility. Let’s hit it.
Alright – this movie is set somewhere in the late 1800’s? It’s a bit unclear. But I’m guessing we are in the realm of 1892? Let’s go with that until an angry reader checks me into the boards. Yeah, 1892, Ephraim Winslow is heading out to his lighthouse post as a wickie. (Note: not a Wiki, a WICKIE. Which, I didn’t know was a thing until now… so look at that, we are already learning something together!) Thomas Wake, determined to use our young Ephraim like a rented mule, is not too happy with his young understudy. Almost immediately off the bat, this thing goes horribly sideways with a small mermaid figurine (What would you call this thing? A Totem? Shibboleth? Nope, I just looked it up – its definitely a scrimshaw.) found in Winslow’s cot. Is it a talisman to ward off mermaids? To summon them? Is it just for a seaman’s good luck? Regardless, Ephraim takes it with him. Soon after, Winslow watches as Wake heads into the lantern of the lighthouse, stripping naked, and there may, or may not have been, tentacles. I’m not going to conjecture. But yeah. We see tentacles involved in these lighthouse shenanigans. It goes without saying that Wake continuously refuses to allow Winslow to enter the lantern portion of the lighthouse. It’s 100% off limits. (Which, seems fairly important for some reason.)
So, yes, Wake throws Winslow under the bus time and time again. Always giving him the backbreaking jobs. The first half of this movie is all about seeing what an arduously difficult, and crushing job being a wickie might be like. He’s wet, sopping in chamber pot excrement, hefting enormous containers to the top of the lighthouse. Instantly demystified the idea of working in a lighthouse for me. Well, things aren’t going well for Winslow, and at a rare moment of downtime, he masturbates to the little mermaid talisman. (Taliswoman?) And soon after the two begin to drink together, and they start sharing about their stories. From Wake, we learn that the previous wickie died soon after going mad while on the job. And from Ephraim, he let’s Wake know that previously, he worked in Canada as logger and randomly needed a life change. (???)
With only one day up before his four weeks are over (Phew, we are almost out of here??? Please, tell me it’s so.) Winslow investigates an issue with the water pump. And when he finds a dying seagull in the cistern, he snaps when a one-eyed gull attacks him. Now, Wake had made it abundantly clear that it was bad luck to hurt a seagull because he believed they were the reincarnated souls of lost sailors. Well, Winslow pays this advice zero heed, and bludgeons the bird into literal pulp. With that, the winds change direction and Mary Poppins flies down to shape these two up. OK, so that didn’t happen. But that is what is supposed to happen when the weather vane decided changes course. We are all aware that things are about to go south – which, is saying something – because things are not going well here at all already. Maybe Winslow shouldn’t have killed the gull – just saying.
When, OBVIOUSLY, the ferry doesn’t arrive, Winslow sees a body washing up on the shore. A mermaid. Is this a vision? A stress induced hallucination? When the Merwoman wakes, she screams, causing Winslow to run back to the lighthouse. That is when Wake informs Winslow that their remaining rations have been hit by water, and have spoiled. Worse, Winslow is informed that many weeks have passed since the ferry failed to arrive. Uh, OK? I think? Really? And when the two men dig up a crate out of the ground that is supposed to be their last-ditch rations, they only find alcohol. Well, at least they are going to party all the way into the ground!!
As days incessantly continue onward, and the storm does nothing but rage, the two men continue their adversarial jousting. The deeper Winslow’s stay continues, the madder he becomes about getting into that lantern. He even goes so far as to attempt to steal the key in order to get in. Did I mention that in here somewhere, the previous wickie’s head turns up in a lobster trap? Yeah, cause that happened too. Well, one night, while drunk, Winslow tells Wake that his real name is actually Thomas Howard. And that while working back at the logging camp, Ephraim Winslow, Thomas Howard’s foreman died in a logjam accident that Thomas failed (refused) to stop. And now Wake knows of Howard’s past, a past that he has been running from. But when Winslow nee Howard, attempts to leave on the Dory, Wake destroys the boat. Better yet, when the two reconnect, it’s Wake that suggests it was Howard who had attacked him and destroyed the boat. What is happening here?
The two men then devolve into a drunken scrum of madness when they begin drinking turpentine and honey after the alcohol was gone. The storm continues increasing, and with no signs of abatement, and waves crash through the windows. In the morning, Howard discovers Wake’s journal wherein he discovers how critical he was of his performance at the lighthouse. The two men have a knock-down drag-out argument, fighting about who was abusing whom. Howard tells Wake he’s been mentally abusing him, and Wake laughs at Howard for being weak. But then Howard begs to see the light in the lighthouse (there is something very deep here – just can’t put my finger on it…) and Wake refuses. That’s when Howard snaps, and attacks Wake.
Now, this is where everything goes topsy-turvy.
Howard begins seeing visions. Visions of the mermaid. Visions of Wake, but this time as a sea monster. Tentacled and horrible. He then begins attacking Wake with a vengeance. Worse, he beats him into submission. Puts a rope leash on him, and walks him out on his hands and knees. And then he buries him alive in the ground. But just before he does, he curses Howard to a “Promethean fate.” (Just give me a second, we’ll get to it.)
So, Howard has the keys, and he heads up to the lantern room. But out of nowhere, Wake arrives and hits Howard with an axe. And Howard blasts Wake with a kettle(?)! And then kills Wake with the axe. After which, Howard ascends the lighthouse, and enters the lens room. And the lens opens on its own, beckoning him in. Howard can’t turn his gaze away from the light – and he then begins screaming as the light pulses and the sound explodes. Howard slips, falls, and tumbles down the lantern’s stairs.
And then, there is Howard, lying naked on the rocks, with an eye pecked out, and the gulls all around him pecking out his innards.
So What’s a Promethean Fate?
Where do we start? How about with that ending… Within the world of Greek mythology, Prometheus was a hero…but something of a trickster. Such a big trickster that he single-handedly crafted humanity out of clay. Worse though, was the fact that he stole fire from the gods, and delivered it to his creation, which allowed humanity to craft civilization. OK? But, for his crimes against the gods he was punished. Zeus, the king of all the Olympian gods, declared Prometheus to eternal torment. Well, Zeus had him bound to a rock, and each day, an eagle would come (Zeus’ emblem…so basically Zeus came) and eat out Prometheus’ liver. That night, his liver would grow back, only to be eaten again the next day. Yeah, a fairly horrible punishment.
Now, how did Howard die? Exactly how Prometheus died. Gulls hacking out his innards. And what do we make of this? Well, if he died like a god – Prometheus – then maybe we are dealing with a myth here. Possibly? Maybe. This sculpture of Prometheus in torment (Prometheus Bound) was carved by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam in 1762…and if you are dying to see it in person, you can find it in the Louvre.
Prometheus depicted in a sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, 1762
The Lighthouse Movie Explained
OK, so yeah, myth, symbolism, and lore weighs extraordinarily heavily on every frame of this film. But how do we derive something of an explanation among all this chaos? And ultimately, what was in the light? The light that basically killed him by spiking him down the lighthouse stairs like a cartwheeling cheerleader. Only glitch? If you find out what was in the light, it might kill you too, per Robert Eggers, the director:
“Last night at a screening, someone asked me, ‘Why didn’t you photograph what Rob [Pattinson] sees at the end of the movie?’ Because if you saw it, that same fate would befall you.”
Well, Eggers had decided that Prometheus and Proteus weren’t ones to hang out in myths together…but that it’d be interesting to see Prometheus take on characteristics that he normally hasn’t in the past. And you know what? “The classical authors did that all the time.” So, we covered Prometheus… who was Proteus? He was a man of the sea, a friend to the leviathans and behemoths of the watery underworld. Better yet, he knew tons, but didn’t ever share it. (Compare that with Prometheus’ giving of fire, and creating humans from clay, and we have what could shape up to be a real knock- down drag-out.)
Now, consider the path that our Prometheus took in the movie. He overcame all obstacles, defied the gods (or god), he ascended Mount Olympus, stole the light he was forbidden, and then was punished to a lifetime of having his liver eaten by a Zeus proxy eagle, I mean seagull.
The Role of Identity in the Lighthouse
But here’s the thing…these “gods” are actually frauds. Ephraim Winslow is on the run from his past. Heck, he isn’t even Ephraim Winslow – he’s a fleeing Thomas Howard, and he is running from himself and his past. And Thomas Wake? Our Proteus, the man of the sea, and friends of the leviathans and behemoths? HE’S NEVER BEEN A SAILOR! It’s really abundantly clear that both of these guys, who have been crammed into this phallic-house, I mean, lighthouse, are not only lying to each other, but also to themselves about who they really are. The themes of this film are all about male frustration. Desire. Loss. And selfish possessiveness. Ultimately, it’s two men fighting to the death over a light that might as well be a woman. It’s a tale as old as time. (Angela Lansbury I apologize.)
These guys are fraud-gods. They both desire to convince the other that they are vaunted and appreciated demigods. But ultimately they are just normal men, with normal flaws, and normal failings, doing their best to just remain sane among the chaos of everyday life. Prometheus stole fire from the gods – symbolizing life, power, life, civilization, everything. And the light at the top of Olympus, I mean, the lighthouse, symbolizes all these things as well. Forbidden knowledge. Power. It was Thomas’ ascension to god-like knowledge, and truth. He had overcome the gods for one small moment. (And then spent the rest of eternity paying for it.)
Personally, I see this movie more as an allegory for the lives of mortal men trying to find who they really are. You might be unfamiliar with this truth, but men happen to have issues with self identity and purpose inside themselves (but rather in work, hobbies, skills, football teams…what have you.). Or maybe I’m reading way way too far into this. And it’s actually about two committable individuals who are so utterly bereft of morals and ethics, they should just be put out of their misery. What do I know?
Edited by: CY