*Beware: Thar be spoilers ahead for The Lighthouse*
Much like his 2015 New England spookshow debut The VVitch, director Robert Eggers‘ The Lighthouse ends on an image that could be literal, nightmarish, or both simultaneously, depending on how hard you believe in myth and magic. Symbolism weighs heavy on every second of The Lighthouse, a story of two men struggling mightily with identity, time, and self inside a giant phallus. But is there a concrete answer to what a person sees when they finally get a glimpse into the light, the same light that seems to consume Robert Pattinson‘s Ephraim Winslow? We’ve got something close to an answer, but The Lighthouse warns that answers can be dangerous.
“Last night at a screening, someone asked me, ‘Why didn’t you photograph what Rob [Pattinson] sees at the end of the movie?’ Eggers told Vox. “And I said, ‘Because if you saw it, that same fate would befall you.'”
First, here’s what literally happens in the film:
Two lighthouse keepers, Ephraim (Pattinson) and Thomas (Willem Dafoe) arrive on a windy, isolated rock for a four-week maintenance shift. Thomas is a salty old-timer with a false leg, Ephraim a newcomer to the gig replacing a partner who went insane. Thomas sets Ephrim to grunt work, carting rocks and swabbing floors, decreeing that he and he alone can tend to the light at the top of the tower. Ephraim kills a seagull, a heinous crime in the eyes of the superstitious Thomas, who believes the birds carry the souls of lost sailors. Tensions between the two men boil over after they miss their rescue at the four-week window. They drink themselves into shouting stupors. Ephraim masturbates furiously to a mermaid statue in-between visions of a real mermaid haunting his waking moments. Thomas farts up a storm. The sea rages dangerously outside until secrets are revealed; Ephraim isn’t Ephraim at all. His name is also Thomas, and he murdered a man and stole his identity. As it turns out, it won’t be the only murder in his life. After discovering a logbook filled with criticisms and recommendations to withhold pay, the younger Thomas beats the elder man bloody, tries to bury him alive, and finally buries an ax in his face. Partnerless, Thomas-turned-Ephraim finally ascends to the lighthouse’s spinning, glowing orb, and whatever he sees in that light overcomes him completely, turning him into a photonegative husk and sending him tumbling back down the spiral staircase to the bottom of the structure.
The last image we get in The Lighthouse is the younger Thomas broken open on the rocks, seagulls eating his innards while he’s still alive.
It is…a lot to take in, and at first glance seems as unknowable as the ocean itself. But the key to getting a read on The Lighthouse is understanding how important myth, fables, and folklore are to Eggers, a filmmaker known for going deep into his research. Here, we’re dealing mostly with two myths in particular, the Greek figures of Proteus and Prometheus.
“[W]e realized, ‘Well, Prometheus and Proteus never hung out in any Greek myths before, but that seems to be what is kind of happening here,’ and Prometheus might be taking on some characteristics that he hasn’t in the past,” Eggers said in that same interview. “But you know what? The classical authors did that all the time.”
Proteus was one of myth’s first old men of the sea, a primordial keeper of knowledge and friend to the sea-beasts that knew everything there is to know but hated sharing that knowledge, prickly old shithead that he was. Prometheus, on the other hand, was one heck of a giver; a trickster Titan, Prometheus famously stole fire from the gods, sparking intelligent life in humanity. Zeus, a noted asshole all around, ordered Prometheus chained to a rock, where an eagle would arrive every day to pick out the Titan’s organs.
The symbolism in The Lighthouse easily matches up with the myths, as Pattinson defies a “god”, climbs the spiraling “mountain Olympus”, and tastes of the forbidden light before getting his guts eaten for his crimes. What’s more, Eggers has noted the film’s final image was partially inspired by Jean Delville, the Belgian symbolist painter whose “Prometheus” portrays the Titan’s theft as something beautiful, sad, and dare I say sexy.
But what’s interesting about The Lighthouse is the way, as Eggers mentioned, that it mixes, matches, and straight-up changes character traits from these common myths. Underneath the jargon and flatulence, the film is mostly concerned with identity. Both those men are lying about who they are to each other—it becomes pretty clear that Dafoe’s character didn’t have much of a past as a seasoned sailor—and being squeezed into a close-quarters madhouse forces them to admit they’re probably lying to themselves as well. The themes of The Lighthouse are embedded with a very male brand of frustration, an aggressive, drunken possessiveness over a light that Thomas calls “she” that looks like two animals butting horns, but there is a brief, brief moment among the rage where they almost kiss.
There’s a very Reddit-theory-ish way to watch this film and surmise that Thomas and Thomas are the same person completing an endless cycle, one man raging at himself and his own past mistakes. Certainly, there’s the distinct sound of one leg breaking when Pattinson drops from the lighthouse tower—and Dafoe’s character is largely defined by his one missing leg—and the image of the younger Pattinson falling down a literal spiral is a potent one. How do you say “time is a flat circle” in late-1800s sailor dialect?
But that doesn’t answer what young Thomas sees in the light. I’m sure attention-to-detail hound Robert Eggers has a concrete answer tucked away somewhere, but I’d argue it doesn’t matter. The Lighthouse combines mythology and mood to tell a story about people who don’t understand themselves. Like the fire Prometheus nabbed from the gods, the light at the top of the tower represents everything, all knowledge, and in looking into it Thomas understood everything, all at once. Of course he couldn’t take it. Nobody could, except for the sailors who have already crossed over to the other side and come back as seagulls. Best to leave them alone.