(Previously published 11/14/19 on Features of Fright)
For a film that starts off with Willem Defoe profusely flatulating and hacking like my grandfather, The Lighthouse is clearly not for everyone. It has no need to entertain you, no want to scare you, and makes no attempt to cater to your arthouse expectations one often carries into a black and white film shot in 16mm in this century. It wants you to sit, waiting with bated breath for something to happen, and leave more confused than you were when you walked in. The Lighthouse is not for everyone. It was never intended to be. It was intended to hold you captive as you witness a monochromatic fever dream, told from two inconsistent narrators, as they spiral into madness. It is a batshit concept, beautifully illustrated, and I loved every single second of it.
What we have here is Robert Eggers, once again, composing new narrative out of folklore and mythology. 2015’s The Witch saw Puritan patriarchy melded with New England folktales of witch craft and The Devil. The Lighthouse sees a blend of maritime superstitions, and Greek mythology, specifically those of Proteus and Prometheus. For those of you who haven’t brushed up on your Greek mythology, don’t worry. I’ll recap the bullet points here.
Proteus was the god of the sea, who Homer referred to as the “Old Man of the Sea”. He is often ascribed to the elusiveness of the liquid form, changing shapes and forms often, a versatile prophet. The name literally stems from Protean, meaning versatile, mutable, and capable of assuming multiple forms. He was the keeper of ancient knowledge, though he refused to share the knowledge with anyone.
Prometheus, on the other hand, was the Titan that defied the gods, summiting Mount Olympus, stealing fire and giving it to humanity, creating intelligent lives in society. For his crimes, Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock for eternity, having his organs plucked out every day by an eagle. This will be important later on. Prometheus was a champion of mankind, intelligent and tricky enough to outsmart the God of all gods, only to give up this forbidden knowledge for the greater good of mankind.
Now, we have The Lighthouse. Robert Pattinson plays Ephraim, who is later revealed to be named Thomas. He is a young man who has fled a life in the timber industry following the death of his boss, instead shedding his old identity of Thomas and taking on the identity of his employer and becoming Ephraim. Through a new identity, he is given a fresh start and comes to The Lighthouse for a four week stint, hoping to learn the trade of being a lighthouse “wickie” and make money in the process.
Willem Dafoe on the other hand plays Thomas Wake, the keeper of the lighthouse, a grizzled old drunk who insists on his law above that of the keeper’s manual. He speaks about a forgotten past, and how he has always worked on the ocean, first on a ship, and now at The Lighthouse. He spends the majority of all three acts drunkenly shouting, being an overall pain in the ass to Ephraim-Thomas, and audibly shitting his pants in every silent moment.
The film treads mysteriously through the four-week stint, each character on each other’s nerves. Old Thomas speaks of the old keepers of The Lighthouse, that died or went crazy or washed out of the job. Ephraim-Thomas finds the head of a former keeper’s assistant that turned up in a lobster trap, and suspects foul play on the hands of Old Thomas. Ephraim-Thomas is plagued by a curious seagull, that bothers him daily, even at his window at night, a la Edgar Allen Poe. He swats at it and shoos it away, while being warned by Old Thomas that he must not harm the seagulls, as harming a gull is a bad omen among maritime circles. One day when cleaning the cistern, he finds a dead gull splayed out in the water. His seagull then comes to bother him, sparking Ephraim-Thomas to snag the gull, and bash it repeatedly against the concrete, covering himself in blood. It’s a brutal scene, that extends far too long for comfort, in classic Eggers’ fashion.
This is major turning point in the film, as he is scheduled to be picked up the next day. The wind changes and Old Thomas warns that a Noreastern storm is coming. They board the windows up and retire for dinner. Ephraim-Thomas decides to allow himself to break the rules that night and get drunk with Old Thomas for his last night. They engage in rigorous drinking, singing, and telling stories. He awakes the next day and they find the storm has hit The Lighthouse and the boat never comes. No boat means no escape. It also means no supplies, and more time together for the two men. Time begins to become muddied, and Ephraim-Thomas has no idea how long he has been there, and Old Thomas continues to skew this further, talking about how it has been weeks since the boat missed them. The two begin to devolve into their own versions of madness, Old Thomas becoming more and more strict and provoking, Ephraim-Thomas turning to alcohol to get through the day.
They drink, they sing, they fight often, over and over. They begin to take on the married couple role, airing their grievances with one another on a daily basis. After one fight, Ephraim-Thomas talks about how badly he wants a rare steak. Old Thomas is hurt, naming off dishes that he had prepared that he is sure that Ephraim-Thomas enjoyed. “Surely ye like my lobster?” he exclaims. When Ephraim-Thomas says nothing, Old Thomas conjures a maritime curse. In a scene that is equivalently jarring as the monologue by Toni Collete in Hereditary, Old Thomas, bathed in harsh shadow, resembles a cursed demigod, casting down his power on the young Thomas-Ephraim.
The storms continue and the days begin to run together, with Ephraim-Thomas being plagued by hallucinations. He sees the severed head of Old Thomas’ previous helper, he sees a mermaid that entices him, and is drawn into several masturbatory sequences of him fantasizing over a mermaid carving.
The tension builds and builds until Ephraim-Thomas finally confesses his past, revealing that he watched his previous employer die in an accident, taking his identity and fleeing his past. Suddenly, Old Thomas’ voice floats eerily through the scene, asking “Why’d ya spill yer beans?”, asking him why he felt the need to confess to him. Ephraim-Thomas, done with the insanity decides to escape in the lifeboat, until Old Thomas hacks it to pieces with an axe. He flees indoors, where Old Thomas claims it was in fact Ephraim-Thomas that attacked him with the axe. The two eventually turn to mixing light fuel with water in order to get drunk, as their “rations” have run dry. The cabin is then battered by the storm, and flooded.
Ephraim-Thomas, the following morning, finds the log book floating among the wreckage. He reads that Old Thomas has recommended he is given severance without pay, as well as recorded every infraction. Ephraim-Thomas snaps and beats Old Thomas in a hallucinatory sequence, seeing him as a mermaid, as a tentacled sea monster, and then as the real Thomas Winslow. He ties Old Thomas to a leash, and buries him in the empty ration pit below the lighthouse, and takes his key to the lightroom. Old Thomas appears once more and buries an axe in the shoulder of Ephraim-Thomas. Ephraim-Thomas kicks him down the long flight of stairs, effectively killing him. Ephraim-Thomas then enters the lightroom, opens the port in the Fresnel lens of the light, and begins staring in complete ecstasy, before letting out a pained and horrible scream as the screen exposure increases to nothing. The final scene shows Ephraim-Thomas chained to the rocks of the island, naked and one eyed, as seagulls peck out his insides.
Here is the culmination of the mythology in full. Old Thomas is the film’s Proteus, the keeper of knowledge, the friend of the sea creatures. He knows all, but absolutely hates to share this knowledge. We see this when Ephraim-Thomas repeatedly asks to learn how to run the light and take on more responsibility, and is met with refusal each time. This is Old Thomas’ lighthouse, and only he can run it. He locks himself in the light room each night, stares longingly into the light itself, and refuses to share the enchantment with anyone else.
Ephraim-Thomas on the other hand, is the film’s Prometheus. The titan that climbs the spiral of Olympus (The Lighthouse), and steals the light from the gods. And just like the myth, we see that Ephraim-Thomas pays for his crimes, as he is chained to a rock for his days, as his intestines spill out and are eaten by the birds he despises.
But that isn’t even the most interesting way to read the film. The one that stood out to me was the use of an Old Thomas and a Young Thomas. In fact, the script just refers to them as simply OLD and YOUNG. I, and from a quick google search plenty others, seem to read it as a repetitive cycle. Old Thomas and Young Thomas are the same person, trapped in an endless loop. When Young Thomas falls from the lighthouse while painting, his leg snaps audibly. Old Thomas is characterized by having a limp from his missing leg. It is a fable of male aggression, frustration and possession, trapping our characters in a closed loop for eternity. Young Thomas and Old Thomas see the same thing in the light. They realize in that moment that they understand everything, that time is a flat circle and that they are living out the same thing over and over. That they are one and the same. Old Thomas sees this nightly. He knows the secret and it warps him into the man he is. Young Thomas finally sees it and it terrifies him. Because of this transgression, he is punished for the rest of his life.
And when he finally dies? What happens then? I suspect he opens his eyes to the first frame of the film, with him stepping onto the island for the first day. The waves roll in, and roll out, endlessly, forever.