Robert Eggers’s 2015 ‘The Witch‘ broke the template for the horror films. Ignoring the generally accepted tropes of the genre, his film left many cinemagoers scratching their heads collectively. In 2019 Eggers took a dip in the sea of obscurity with The Lighthouse and delivered us a cross-over between Jungian Psychology, Nautical Folklore, and Greek mythos. In turn, he solidifies his hold on many terms ‘The New England Dread.’
The history fanatic Robert Eggers is at his best here. He plays with ideas and uses literature, jarring paintings, and detailed facts to tell a tale that does not satisfy anyone’s appetite for closure. The internet and the decipherers find no fodder here, and the film largely remains an ambiguous mystery to many. The film on its first watch may look esoteric, but it tries hard not to exclude anyone. Eggers is acutely aware that the obtuse atmosphere of the film may very well be a ‘bit too Indie’ for some, so he throws farts and masturbates your way.
Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse opens with an approaching ship cutting through the sea, bound to a desolate Island. The film follows the life of Ephraim Winslow, a wickie, and Thomas Wake, a seasoned lighthouse keeper stationed for a month to tend the Lighthouse. As Winslow looks back at the departing ship with a forlorn stare, we see the very ship disappearing out of thin air. This blur between reality and perceived reality remains constant throughout the film.
The film is told chiefly from Winslow’s perspective, shot in Black and White Photography and in an intimate setting of 1.19:1 ratio. Being shoved in a close quarter with daunting Wake, Winslow starts having strange visions. The film never dwells into details if these experiences are actually taking place or not. The Lighthouse may very well be a film about two people and their slow descent to madness. Still, the stark visual imagery and enigmatic monologues suggest much more. It’s perhaps a film that invites all interpretations and rejects none.
Juggling many themes at its fold, Robert Eggers asserts that the story above all is about Identity and Power. Eggers’s writing is heavily thematic here and focuses on the identity of the two characters and the connection or tension between them. Eggers uses this tension to unearth their true self and identity. Winslow’s real name is Thomas Howard, who assumed the identity of his former boss Ephraim Winslow. Whether he killed his former boss or not, it is clear that he bears the burden of guilt on his psyche. This guilt, mixed with his desire to build himself a new, better life, is tested on the island, and the constant jeer of Wake isn’t helpful either.
On the other hand, Wake is at home here; his never-ending fable about past sailor life is dubious at best. Wake is a seasoned lightkeeper who hides behind the façade of good ol days at the sea. Both men bear the stain of the painful past and push against it. Wake seems to find his happiness tending the mysterious light at the top of the tower and baits Winslow into desiring this forbidden fruit. He deliberately pushes already disturbed Winslow into a state of delusion so he can retain his dominance and power.
The film uses an allegorical device to convey its many themes. The recurring image of the mermaid in the film can be seen as a symbol of Winslow’s growing disconnect from reality. Her image deteriorates as Winslow loses his leaves slowly. Along with the mermaid, Winslow is constantly tormented by an aggressive flock of seagulls. Eggers’s usage of seagulls is his tribute to old sailor folklore and the Hitchcockian way of filmmaking. He is well aware of its effect and uses it to keep the viewers’ attention going.
Many films rely heavily on Greek mythology and imagine Proteus and Prometheus’s apparition in Winslow and Wake. Greek mythology paints Prometheus as a seeker of knowledge; whereas, Proteus is portrayed as a bearer of wisdom. Eggers reimagines these two titans colliding with one another, something that never takes place in Greek myths. “The classical authors did that all the time.” Eggers reasons, so they did, and Eggers followed suit. Some of the instincts our two lead characters are being swayed by are reflected from the very nature of their Greek Titan’s counterpart.
In Greek mythology, Proteus was a sea god, a knowledge-keeper who could change shape and foretell the future, only he is not too keen on sharing his knowledge. Prometheus is famously known for stealing fire from Zeus and gifting it to humans. An act he was severely punished for by being chained to a rock for eternity, where an eagle tore his liver up each day. The last jarring image of Winslow lying on the jagged rocks while seagulls were picking his liver apart solidifies this assessment. Winslow’s fixation on uncovering the mystery of the Lighthouse pushes him to his tragic end, and the film ends without telling what he saw. The closest we come to answer is when Winslow is burying Wake alive, and Wake launches into a prophetic monologue:
“O what Protean forms swim up from men’s minds.”
While pointing out that there is no assertion what Winslow might find in the light, Wake here suggests two possibilities; Promethean fate or eternal enlightenment. Only he warns Winslow that he is not ready to bear the truth at the top of the tower and largely is proven right. The film’s last jarring image falls into place when seen from Greek myths and lore. Eggers replaces eagles with gulls here to give redemption to his ‘bad luck to kill seagull’ story.
The Lighthouse is a film that will make you sick to your stomach. It’s a scary yet adventurous ride, but like a green sailor on his first voyage, you would want to return to this suspenseful ship again. What could be a more intimate experience than a film that gives a different meaning to different people? Maybe it’s a film about Winslow and his slow descent to madness in a cold, harsh atmosphere, or it’s a film about two guys stuck in purgatory, banished to fend for their sins. Maybe just like Pattinson’s Winslow, we are not supposed to know and accept that the answer lies in not knowing.
The Lighthouse is a 2019 Fantasy Horror Film directed by Robert Eggers.