This post contains spoilers for The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse is a beautiful, baffling, hypnotizing wild ride. The events that take place defy the confines of plot summary, let alone any clear explanations for what it all means.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t lots to gain from trying.
From The Witch director Robert Eggers, this surreal black-and-white 35-millimeter horror movie stars Robert Pattinson and William Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers. Pattinson’s character (who we’ll refer to as Ephraim to make things simple, though even that’s a question) is the new temporary wickie (or assistant) to Dafoe’s more senior Thomas Wake.
The two hours of madness that follow ensures you leave the film not knowing which way is north or south. There’s no single “correct” way to understand what happens in The Lighthouse. But we’ll do our best to be a beacon of light guiding you through the darkness of this storm.
The more surface-level explanations
While The Lighthouse‘s ambiguity and allusions lend themselves to all sorts of metaphorical deep-dives, there’s also a few more straightforward reads. Or rather, as straightforward as this movie gets.
The first is that Ephraim lost his mind waiting out the big storm, so most of what takes place after the night the ship doesn’t come is happening inside his head. Sure, there’s wacky stuff before then too. But most of it can be chalked up to Ephraim dreaming or fantasizing or being paranoid.
Reality only starts going topsy-turvy after the night Thomas gets Ephraim drunk for the first time. There’s an argument to be made that whatever home-brewed liquor (or eventually kerosene) they’re drinking also poisons their minds, which could very well have caused the hallucinations that follow.
What ultimately drives our protagonist to madness is up for debate though too, as well as whether Thomas deliberately manipulated him into it.
Getting stuck on that godforsaken island with the worst company and weather Is enough in itself. But there’s also an indication that, Moby Dick-style, Ephraim became so obsessed with getting access to the lighthouse that it leads him to murder after a total break from reality.
But the movie also implies that our unreliable narrator was never of sound mind even before arriving on the island.
The movie also implies that our unreliable narrator was never of sound mind even before arriving on the island. As Thomas argues, the lumber “accident” that led to the foreman’s death at Ephraim’s previous job was more likely a deliberate murder.
Regardless of how it happened, the guilt from this death seems to weigh on Ephraim to the point of driving him over the edge. He dreams about drowning under logs at the beginning of the movie, and later during his most unhinged moments, he sees flashes of the man killed. Also, the way he eventually kills Thomas with an ax calls back to Ephraim’s previous occupation as a timberman.
Thomas is right about one thing, though: Ephraim definitely took this awful and secluded job on the island because he’s on the run. But as he soon discovers, he can’t outrun the prison of his own guilty conscious.
Pattinson prefers this read on the story, with Eggers telling Den of Geek that, “Robert Pattinson said to me before agreeing to this, ‘I don’t want to make a movie about a magical lighthouse. I want to make a movie about a fucking crazy person.’”
It’s also just as likely that both Thomas and Ephraim are having a shared delusion. Or (and we’ll touch on this more later), you can see Thomas and Ephraim as representing two parts of the same person.
Dafoe’s Thomas is sketchy from the start too. We start to question whether he’s deliberately pushing Ephraim into insanity after hearing of how his last wickie died. Thomas could’ve murdered him or driven him to take his own life.
Ephraim finds the previous wickie’s decapitated head in a fishing net, so Thomas is now faced with a witness to his crime. After that scene, he keeps trying to gaslight Ephraim into not trusting reality, getting him constantly plastered, filling his mind with paranoid delusions, and making him question even time itself.
In the scene where Thomas runs at Ephraim with the ax, he tells an alternate version of events where he’s actually the crazed ax murderer before then destroying the lifeboat that was his only chance at leaving to tell authorities the real story.
Why would Thomas keep killing his assistants? Well Ephraim later finds his superior’s notes filled with lies about him misbehaving, and the suggestion that the company fire him without pay. Maybe, Thomas is simply after some more cash.
Or maybe it’s just some sick game he plays over and over again (until now).
The homoeroticism and Jungian symbols
If anything can be said to be “obvious” about this movie, it’s the undeniable and mounting homoerotic tension between Thomas and Ephraim. Actually, homoeroticism is embedded into the symbol of the lighthouse itself too.
“It was pretty explicit in the script. The script said the lighthouse looked like an erect penis,” Pattinson said in a HuffPost interview.
“The script said the lighthouse looked like an erect penis.”
Eggers expanded on that to say say the queer subtext was always at the heart of the movie’s central relationship, but that “[t]he whole thing is about power dynamics, so it is about Willem pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing. And there’s pent-up anger and pent-up erotic energy and pent-up smells. Where is that breaking point?”
But the two’s sexuality, Eggers said, isn’t a binary (gay versus not gay). It’s less about exploring human sexuality or sexual orientation, and more about the questions that those homoerotic sexual overtones represent from a broader Freudian perspective.
There’s a lot of heteronormative stuff too, like Thomas humiliating Ephraim by forcing him to do all the more “feminine” domestic duties, which leads him to even say that he didn’t sign up to be anybody’s wife.
Meanwhile, Thomas gets exclusive, in a way, with the phallic symbol of the lighthouse. He constantly refers to the lighthouse as she/her, equating her to a better wife than any living woman. According to Dafoe, the homoeroticism of the film does speak to some aspects of identity and what it means to be a man:
“Toxic masculinity! They’re pushing each other’s buttons out of fear and out of threat of who they are. And they’re both guilty. They have a sense of guilt, of wrong. There’s no moral judgment in this story. It’s just to watch these two guys struggling to find a way to survive themselves, really… It’s a simple story, but it’s got existential roots and identity things and things about masculinity and domination and submission. And for better and for worse. Then you see it flip-flop and it’s kind of cool.”
As Eggers summarizes at the end of the interview, everything he writes is “Jungian-inclined” — meaning he’s working with symbols and archetypes that psychoanalyst Carl Jung described as part of the collective unconscious.
“We hammer it home with vaginal keyholes and phallic lumberjack tools and logs,” he said.
From the Jungian perspective, Thomas and Ephraim could even represent different aspects of the same person’s psychology. Thomas is like the bestial id giving in to all his basest desires and Ephraim is like the ego, conscientious of social norms and struggling to maintain civility. This is all supported by the fact that we learn Ephraim’s real name is also Thomas (or Tommy).
The mythological, metaphorical, and magical answers
Now that we’ve gotten through the more grounded readings of the movie, let’s dive headfirst into what the many mythical and literary allusions sprinkled throughout The Lighthouse could mean.
On the Moby Dick front, similar to the whale, the lighthouse can be seen as a symbol for man’s hubris in trying to overcome or conquer nature’s most powerful forces. Lighthouses were designed to help ships navigate the dangers of the sea. A man-made North Star guiding sailors through the darkness and storms, lighthouses give us a false sense of security to cling to as we faces the unknown.
Lighthouses give us a false sense of security to cling to as we face the unknown.
In the scene at the end when Ephraim finally gets to gaze into the lighthouse, the literal darkness of the black-and-white film is eradicated by its blinding light. It illuminates a face filled with mad relief, joy, and exhilaration — like Ephraim finally found the answer to all the existential uncertainty he’s faced on the rock.
On the subject of the final sequence, man’s hubris, and light, Eggers told Vox that he wrote Ephraim to represent the Greek mythological figure of Prometheus and Thomas as Proteus.
Known as the champion of humanity, Prometheus created man from clay and also defied Zeus by stealing fire from the gods to gift it to humanity. Much like the last shot of the movie, Prometheus’ punishment for this theft is to be chained to a rock as he’s eaten alive by an eagle, a torture that lasts all eternity since he’s immortal and can never truly die.
Often people analyze “fire” in this legend as a metaphor for knowledge, with literal light standing in for the “illumination” or “enlightenment” of mankind. Again, that relates back to the lighthouse as a symbol for how man uses knowledge to invent ways to keep darkness, death, and the unknown at bay.
Throughout the film, Ephraim is constantly both fighting against and being entranced by deadly forces of nature, whether it’s the storms or sirens. Those moments stand in contrast to all the man-made machinery he’s tasked with maintaining, whether it’s the steam engine keeping the lighthouse going or his many attempts to keep the elements like water or dirt from destroying the house.
Thomas as Proteus makes a lot of sense, too, since Proteus is an old, prophecy-telling ocean god who serves Poseidon, and who Homer called the “Old Man of the Sea.” Thomas isn’t just the perfect archetype of an old seafaring man; he also makes that uncannily accurate prediction for how Ephraim will die at the end of the movie.
He might’ve even cursed Ephraim to this fate in that moment — all because the younger man didn’t like his cooking. It’s probably the same curse he put on the wickie who died before Ephraim. Proteus also represents the unpredictable shifts in tides and sea storms, which gives credence to the theory that Thomas brought on the storm that kept them both stranded on that island.
We haven’t even mentioned the influence of H. P. Lovecraft, which is all over this movie as the director admitted in several interviews. The tentacled creatures and sirens we see throughout indicate that the island could be home to the Deep Ones, ancient Lovecraftian sea gods who mate with humans to create entire hybrid species.
All in all, what the mythological and literary illusions all add up to is the theme of man’s eternal battle with forces of nature much more powerful than them. When faced with all these existential threats, we seek to regain power over the unpredictability of nature by any means necessary.
Even if that means killing your only companion with an ax for the privilege of looking at a light.