‘’Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee, as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. ‘’
(Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851)
The first obvious thing to notice about the movie directed by Robert Eggers with a screenplay by his brother Max Eggers, is that it is utterly and deliberately devoid of colour and has been deliberately shot in monochrome with a 4:3 ratio which creates a feeling of both authenticity in the period being reconstructed and an overwhelming sense of containment and claustrophobia. It is trying and succeeding to take us back in time both technically and temporally.
The time is middle to late 19th century, New England, America and we are within the same geographic region of his previous film ‘The Witch’ but approximately 200 years later. The evil is still here. It is not religious fanaticism taken to extreme lengths or Judeo-Christian eschatology and the fetishistic preoccupation with the Devil. It is the evil that slumbers within men's souls and rises when circumstances become in extremis. That is what preoccupies this movie.
We are on an inhospitable rock where two men are about to spend a month together and fulfil their allotted task of keeping this lighthouse in full working order to warn ships of the impending disaster that they face, if they continue on their present course.
One is old and the other is young. The older man, Thomas Wake, played by Willem Dafoe is an experienced seafarer whilst his younger associate, Ephraim Winslow, has no experience of working on a lighthouse nor any knowledge of the sea and its mythic tales and lore, whatsoever.
It is his first job as a wickie. At first it seems that the young novice could benefit from being an apprentice to this experienced sorcerer of light but their relationship starts badly when Ephraim Winslow refuses to toast with liquor, at the dinner table. It is immediately taken as a bad omen by the veteran seaman Thomas and we too feel the tension increase over such a simple request. Winslow seems in the wrong place at the wrong time with his refusal to drink liqueur which is the very life blood of the seamen's community and drinking together an almost sacred ritual. It feels that Winslow has failed his first test.
The older more experienced man has charge of the light whilst the young sorcerers apprentice is given the back breaking and physically intense jobs. We have already seen our first contrasting opposite with the young novice and his experienced master and this is our second: the young novice must earn his right to one day perhaps see the light and even takeover from the old sorcerer after he has completed his apprenticeship to his ‘sensei’. The light could be the force, or the blade of the samurai, or the knights armour, or many different things according to the period and /or the film. However, in The Lighthouse there is something much darker and more disturbing happening here.
The sorcerer is a bully. It becomes obvious very quickly that the ownership of the light is something that Thomas will not relinquish nor even allow Ephraim to even see. The hard work that Ephraim is doing to keep the lighthouse functioning is not being rewarded by even just a peek at this powerful pulse. He is being denied the opportunity to climb the ladder to a higher status. Resentment is natural and that is exactly what happens.
No meritocracy upon the Lighthouse but there is most definitely, proletarian rumblings of discontent and eventually revolutionary action and the overthrow of the Thomas regime by Ephraim, fuelled by visions of sea creatures, and alcohol. This is the Poetic Presentation of Prometheus (cf my last piece) in a nutshell. The changing mythic interpretation from the original origin story to the revolutionary potential of the act of rebellion in taking the fire and distributing it amongst all of humanity. Revolutionary praxis in action. Yet Ephraim in his Promethean iteration will be unable to steal the light. More of that later.
It seems much of this has happened before, during Thomas’s previous time in control of the light. Ephraim has visions of the previous novice and his decapitated, half-blinded head in the lobster basket. This does seem to contradict the version of events given by Thomas who states the previous apprentice went mad. Mad enough to chop his own head off? Or are Ephraim’s visions evidence of the same calamity befalling him?
There is much unreliability in the narratives of both men as we hear Ephraim unburden himself to Thomas telling him that he is an imposter who after failing to avert the death of the foreman at a previous job (or did he murder the foreman?) has taken refuge upon this desolate rock, as a wickie. His real name is Thomas Howard. The same first name as the sorcerer? Is this Ephraim creating his own tall-tale I wonder to match those being told by Thomas about his missing leg?
Winslow/Howard has killed a seabird and the bad luck that Wake believes will attend such a sacrilege does descend upon the lighthouse and the men. A huge storm hits the rock and the ship meant to relieve them does not arrive. Stocks of food are low but Wake has buried bottles of alcohol, for just such an emergency, I assume. Their descent into darkness both real and metaphysical is about to rapidly escalate as the storm hits hard.
We witness them drunk. Good natured at first we see them dancing and laughing together until for a moment they seem to be about to kiss each other and then all hell breaks loose and they go after each other with Winslow/Howard attempting to bury Wake alive and Wake having survived tries to kill Winslow/Howard with an axe straight out of ‘The Shining’. Winslow/Howard grabs the axe and kills Wake as if he were chopping a log. Is this how he killed the foreman in his other job?
We have already witnessed Ephraim copulating with the mermaid which then changed into Thomas and then into a giant octopus. That moment of having an erotic thought about another man even on a seemingly godforsaken and isolated rock, being witnessed by nobody but themselves, seems to have been too much for their masculine psyches to tolerate.
Not surprising given that homosexual sex wasn’t legalised until 1967 in Great Britain for adults over 21 and only in their own home, or lighthouse. The homoeroticism pervades the film from beginning to end. The phallic lighthouse is at the very epicentre and the light at its head, continually arousing both men and pulsing in an extended orgasmic wave. It is the very icing upon this sexual cake.
A lot of these symbols are of course Jungian and the film is infused from top to bottom with archetypes. Thomas and Ephraim could very well represent the same person but be different aspects of that single personality. Ephraim is the ego and Thomas the id. Ephraim tries to uphold (Apollonian) social norms and convention whilst Thomas embraces everything that is Dionysian. On the very first night, we witness this, when Ephraim refuses to imbibe and wants only water, a front and centre foreshadowing of his Apollonian personality. Ephraim once he accepts the fruits of Bacchus becomes more and more a worshipper of Dionysus as he drinks and dances and comes close to real intimacy with Thomas.
Perhaps if they had been intimate, the toxicity of power relationships and homoerotic repression may have been diverted into love and not violence. The Ancient Greeks fundamentally believed in the importance of balance and this applies here. A combination of Apollo and Dionysus would be perhaps the best outcome but they never have a chance as the unequal power relationship completely shipwrecks that tender moment.
But this is undoubtedly not a godforsaken rock. The two men are isolated but only from other humans. The gods are everywhere you look, in the sky, in the air, in the water, in the creatures that fly, swim and crawl. Everywhere. The sea lore that Thomas lives by and with, is an anthropomorphic and pagan rationale for the unfathomable workings of the natural world. And the great movers and shakers of his world are gods from Ancient Greece.
Thomas could very well be the Old Man of the Sea himself, as Ephraim has a vision of him as just that and his changing form (Proteus) has also been ‘seen’ by Ephraim. It is interesting that Sinbad the Sailor once encountered this god/monster and tricked him with wine before killing him. An old sea dog full of very tall tales with a wooden leg who enjoys a good drink would be perhaps a wonderfully ironic shape for Proteus to manifest as.
However, ‘The Lighthouse’ is primarily framed around a vicious battleground between two ancient gods. One who is in control of the fire, Zeus and another, Prometheus who wants to control it. In this brilliant iteration of the myth there are a few notable divergences. In the myth Prometheus will share this fire, this light into the darkness, this Apollonian rationality vanquishing the dark, uncontrolled impulses of Dionysian frenzy and bestial hegemony, with all of humanity. It is a light that will of course ultimately vanquish all the gods themselves and the very essence of the sacred. Hence Zeus will not allow anyone to have it for he must know what will happen.
Ephraim kills to get to see the light. Yet he cannot access it as he is not a god. He is only a mortal and as he attempts to grasp it and take it, the power is too much and he is blinded literally by the white light and falls down like Icarus to Earth. We last see him with his eyes burnt out, slowly dying with his side being pecked, remorselessly, by a seagull in direct but mocking imitation, of the torture decreed by Zeus for Prometheus. For this is the end result for any man who believes himself to be a god. Such hubris is punished with death.
And this for me is the essence of the story and where I believe the most important literary allusion becomes the dominant theme. This is straight from ‘Moby Dick’. On this front, similar to the whale, the very lighthouse itself, 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 survive the dangers of the sea and the dangers lurking in the darkness. A man-made artificial fire guiding ships and their sailors through the darkness and storms and through the ancient tales of terror, this light , created from our scientific knowledge, gives us a temporary sense of security to cling to as we face the darkness and the still unknown.
For as we have witnessed in The Lighthouse becoming transfixed and obsessed with the ‘light’ in whatever form it manifests, is just as dangerous for our humanity as having no light to guide us in the darkness when that reveals itself to us.