"The Lighthouse" is a dark, Daedalian masterpiece
Robert Eggers new film “The Lighthouse” is an elaborately brutal descent into madness starring Robert Pattinson and Willem DaFoe.
Set in the 1890’s, the film is about two men in the United States Lighthouse service who are assigned to a small, isolated New England island. Ephraim Winslow, played by Robert Pattinson, is a fresh recruit under the command of Thomas Wake, a weather-beaten Melvillian sailor played by Willem DaFoe.
Wake is an alcoholic with a mean streak who assigns Winslow all the menial tasks and keeps the light tending duties for himself. After four weeks, they’re set to depart the island until bad weather keeps them stranded there indefinitely. They turn to drunkenness to cope, and soon all sense of time becomes incomprehensible and reality slips into madness as they lose their minds and turn on one another.
“The Lighthouse” is shot in black and white with a nearly square (19:16) aspect ratio which not only gives the film a classic feel but adds to the sense of isolation and paranoia. While most films are shot in a widescreen format, “The Lighthouse” takes away the edges of the frame that we’re used to and leaves us with the sense that something could be there that we’re not seeing, a presence lurking on the peripherals, a danger looming just out of sight. It only adds to the mystery and the ominous sense of an impending encounter with darkness.
The film could be read as a metaphor for toxic masculinity and repressed homosexual desires. There seems to be a clear connection to Herman Melville’s novel “Billy Bud, Sailor” which features a similar dynamic between two men that has often been interpreted with the same sexual theme.
The sexual imagery in the film is just as stark as the violence. From the very first shot, where the ocean imprints a subtle suggestion of the female reproductive system, to the towering phallic symbol of the lighthouse, the sexual symbols are unrelenting.
There’s a simmering tension between these two men, with sexuality itself often framed as something monstrous. Winslow admits he feels “ashamed” of sexuality, even as he furiously masturbates and lusts after mermaids. At one point early on, Winslow is distressed as he spies on Wake through a hole in the roof and watches as Wake’s naked buttocks writhes through the flap of his undergarments as he languidly humps his mattress.
Numerous times throughout the film, Wake teases Winslow about his good looks, even saying he has “eyes as nearly bright as a woman’s.” Later, as they slow dance together in a drunken stupor, Wake attempts to kiss Winslow which sends him into a violent rage.
The ocean is often used as a symbol of the unconscious depths, teeming with strange forms beneath the surface. Here these men are surrounded by it, trapped by it even, and their only safe harbor is their phallic lighthouse which they abide with disturbing reverence. Wake selfishly protects it as his own, and Winslow lusts after it in secret.
These men are isolated and stranded by the imposing depths of the unconscious, which is filled with latent and societally prohibited sexual energy. Their only refuge from the stormy depths of their own repressed sexuality is their towering phallic beacon which becomes not only the reason for their isolation, but for their mental collapse and violent demise.
The allusions to classic literature and mythology are ubiquitous throughout the film. Eggers, who cowrote the script with his brother Max Eggers, references everything from Herman Melville and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to the Greek mythological characters of Proteus, Prometheus, and Triton.
Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is about a sailor forced to wear a dead albatross around his neck as a reminder of the sin he committed by killing it. To “have an albatross around the neck” has become an idiom that refers to a heavy burden of guilt. Here, it becomes apparent that Winslow carries the guilt of a past crime, a crime repeated in his killing of a seagull after Wake fervently warns him against it, explaining that gulls are inhabited by the souls of dead sailors.
Pattinson’s character Winslow is also visually compared to Prometheus, the Titan of Greek mythology who defied Zeus and stole fire from the gods to give to mankind. For his crimes, Prometheus was chained to a rock for eternity, cursed to have his liver perpetually pecked out every day by an eagle, only for it to grow back every night to start the process over again. The eagle, a symbol of Zeus, is here replaced by seagulls, a bird we’re told is inhabited by the souls of dead sailors. Notable too is the connection to the liver, which in ancient Greece was thought to be the seat of human emotions and is known today as the organ which processes alcohol, which these men abuse to a grotesque degree.
It’s alluded to throughout the film that Dafoe’s character Wake may be a form of Proteus, the oracular “old man of the sea” from Greek mythology. As the son of Poseidon and the brother of Triton, Proteus was a sea god who would constantly shift forms to evade capture. If anyone could hold on to him through his various changes and capture him, Proteus would be forced to reveal divine knowledge. Here, Wake seems to be the keeper of a secret knowledge, the divine light of the phallic tower, which he protects under lock and key, and Winslow pursues with morbid curiosity.
The narrative itself is also protean, shifting form to evade definition as the line between what is real and imagined for these characters is ultimately obliterated. The structure of the film can be alienating for some, as two separate groups walked out of the theater prematurely during the screening I attended, but those resolute viewers who hold on through every tentacular writhing will likely be rewarded with the knowledge needed to make sense of what they’ve just experienced.
“The Lighthouse” is a very literary film, with allusions to classic novels, poems, and Greek mythology, but while it retains a brutal sense of humor and captivating performances, casual filmgoers may find the film a bit mystifying. Either way, it’s a magnificent sophomore film from director Robert Eggers and deserves to be remembered as a masterwork for years to come.