For my birthday, I planned to see Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. With a toddler at home, visits to the theater aren’t all that common, so going to see a movie is a bit of a luxury. After watching the initial trailer, and as a huge fan of Eggers’ The Witch, I was initially eager for his next. When I read a preview that described it as a film “achieving depths of cerebral insanity horror rarely breached and impregnating it with a dark sense of comedic absurdity to allow viewers some semblance of sanity as the plot derails into nautical oblivion,” I was about ready to bribe the necessary parties for film festival credentials.
SPOILER WARNING: This post analyzes Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse from the perspective of a particularly lurid scene that takes place late in the film. As such, it includes major spoilers for the plot and deals with topics of a sexual nature.
Alas, I practiced a little patience and waited until the film’s October release. By that time, I’d read a bit more about the movie, and had learned that there was a particular scene in which Robert Pattinson “furiously masturbates.” Equipped without any other context for the scene, I explained to my friends (many of whom were unfamiliar with the movie entirely) the basic plot of theThe Lighthouse and why I was so interested in seeing it. “Pattinson and Dafoe have to man a lighthouse on a secluded island far off the coast of New England. One or both of them is probably crazy. Also there’s a scene where Robert Pattinson furiously masturbates, so that’s a pretty big draw.” After inflating that scene’s significance for myself and some others, anticipation was high when I finally got to the theater (shoutout to Hollywood Theater for showing the movie!).
I’ll admit that I was initially disappointed. I mean, you expect something pretty substantial when you read the words “furious masturbation,” and early in the movie we are witness to a scene in which Robert Pattinson (Ephraim Winslow) is indeed jerking off. It’s really a run-of-the-mill session with Jill, though. I felt a little misled, not that there weren’t plenty of other aspects of the film to enjoy outside of Pattinson pleasuring himself. Of course, that was until I realized I had only seen a prelude to the actual scene in question.
Before getting into the significance of the scene, it’s best to just outline what literally happens before it and within it. Unlike the first, much milder scene featuring solo Ephraim, the second and definitively “furious” scene gives us a window into the character’s fantasy, state of mind, and ultimately into the greater themes of the film.
Ephraim and Thomas (played by Willem Dafoe) are tasked with manning a lighthouse for a month. Thomas, being the senior wickie (lighthouse keeper), frequently issues physically demanding and oftentimes degrading work from Ephraim, which only sours a relationship that really didn’t get off to a great start. Although Ephraim seems to resent Thomas for tasking him with maintaining the lighthouse practically singlehandedly (and for gatekeeping all access to the lighthouse’s lantern room), Ephraim puts up with it to do his duty and earn his check. However, that resentment continues to build throughout The Lighthouse to the point where Ephraim is desperate for release, physically, emotionally, and from the constraints Thomas and the rest of the world have placed on him.
Leading up to the crucial scene, we also see some hints of Ephraim’s attraction to mermaids. When he first arrives at the lighthouse, he unearths the sculpture of a mermaid that was buried in his mattress by his predecessor. This discovery seems to plant a fascination with the creature in his psyche because it plagues him for the remainder of the film, apparently as it did (according to Thomas) for the man who previously held this post as second. One of the earlier, more figurative scenes features Ephraim wading deeper into log-filled water, much like a sailor would be lured by sirens. Later, he finds a woman washed up on the rocks, but when he discovers that she’s actually a mermaid, he’s frightened away by her cackling scream. In both instances, and in many others throughout the movie, the scenes have abstract properties and abruptly transition away to suggest what we’ve seen could have been mere figments of Ephraim’s imagination.
So, by the time Ephraim’s whacking his wickie, it’s clear that he’s angry, a little crazy, and someone has been on his mind lately. While frantically servicing himself with one hand, Ephraim clutches the figure of the mermaid with his other and we see glimpses of his fantasy. Spliced between his abject sexualization of the mermaid on the rocks, another story pierces Ephraim’s mind: a man stands before a logjam. In another shot, a makeshift spear thrusts into view, simultaneously symbolizing Ephraim’s penetration of the sea-creature and a damning act that he later admits to entertaining. When the scene reaches its climax, it’s clear that Ephraim is pained and broken as a result, collapsing to the floor along with the mermaid figurine. His pants wrapped around his legs, binding them together like a fish’s tail, he writhes toward the statue on the floor and splits it to divide the human and fish halves.
That’s a lot to unpack, but let’s start with the man and the logjam. Before Ephraim became a wickie, he worked as a lumberjack. It seems that much like his work at the lighthouse, Ephraim was subordinate to a man who frequently voiced superiority over him, oftentimes referring to Ephraim as a dog, a characterization that he took great offense to. One drunken evening, Ephraim explains all of this to Thomas and admits that he had an opportunity to exact revenge on this particular foreman. While behind the man, who was standing before a logjam, Ephraim considered striking him with a pike and letting the body be buried beneath the bunches of logs. Although Ephraim claims innocence, the man still died, apparently having slipped beneath the water and allowing Ephraim no opportunity to save him. Yet Ephraim still seems to feel responsible for the man’s death, and he is plagued by guilt. His relationship with the man is even more complicated when we learn that Ephraim took this foreman’s name to start a new life.
So, Ephraim maybe killed someone and isn’t really named Ephraim. What does all of this have to do with his fishy fantasy? The mermaid is a classic form that is both human and beast. This creature concept feeds into the insecurity instilled in Ephraim during his time as a lumberjack. He sees the half-fish, half-human as an analog for the human-dog he’s been convinced he is (or was before becoming ‘Ephraim’). Except that in the fantasy, Ephraim assumes the role of superior, a whole person, a man. Like his foreman, Ephraim violates a half-human creature, something he perceives as lesser, but this fantasy also shows him joining with it. In reality, he has changed his name, believing it somehow makes him into a new and better man, but he yet again finds himself subordinate to someone else (Thomas). In the fantasy, he has mounted the inferior inhuman, but he can’t escape the feeling that he is that same creature, that he’s merely playing a role, and deep down he is the dog, a beast, wrong.
Flashes of the logjam – the death of the foreman – haunt Ephraim and poison his desire for dominion over his own life. His fantasy is ultimately interrupted by his sin, perhaps now what he sees as proof of his inhumanity, and he collapses to the ground. When he divides the mermaid figurine into two, it symbolizes the division of what he perceives as his two selves, man and beast, and it displays Ephraim’s conclusion that one must be either a human or a beast.
Ephraim’s rage against the creatures of the world becomes most apparent when he brutalizes the seagull at the well (noted by Thomas to be the soul of a lost sailor), but it’s certainly not the only evidence of his hatred for the inhuman. When he first encounters the woman on the coast, he seems attracted to her. He’s infatuated with her, marveling at her bare form until he fully inspects her and finds that she’s something else. It’s true that Ephraim fantasizes about the mermaid, but it’s a fantasy of dominance. She is the subject of his “fury” because she represents the inferior role he will never escape.
Ephraim assumed the identity of his superior to escape from the lowly status of his previous life, but when he comes to the lighthouse, he finds himself in the same predicament. Changing his name does not change who he is. We eventually learn that his real name is Tommy, suggesting that he and Thomas are two characters that are either thematically entwined or quite literally two parts of a single, fractured mind. Whether parallels or part of one character’s psychotic break is up to some interpretation (as is much of the film’s second half, as evidenced by this lengthy analysis), but it’s clear how Ephraim feels about their relationship by the movie’s climax.
When Thomas and Ephraim finally have it out, Ephraim sees something repellant in Thomas. For a moment, Thomas resembles Triton, the Greek demigod. His tentacles rise up to throttle Ephraim, but Thomas is ultimately bested. In this battle, Ephraim sees his superior in a more beastly form and it encourages him to rise above his station. When he demonstrates his physical superiority over Thomas, he demands that Thomas act like a dog, now seeing Thomas as no more than a beast in disguise. Ephraim rejects the notion that he is inferior by embracing the language of his own tormentor. He believes that he has succeeded in adopting the foreman’s power and that he has supplanted Thomas as the lighthouse’s keeper. Ephraim then decides to ascend to the top of the lighthouse to reap his reward. He leaves Thomas, half-buried at the foot of the tower, to witness the light’s source for himself.
By now, we know that Ephraim is capable of some dark deeds. In his past, his lumberjack foreman was killed under suspicious circumstances, he later kills a seagull with the knowledge that it may be the soul of a dead sailor, and he’s even contemplated murdering Thomas in his sleep. So when Thomas re-enters the lighthouse to stop Ephraim from seeing the lantern, it’s not entirely surprising to the audience and not at all shocking to Ephraim that he can effortlessly kill Thomas. If passively killing his previous foreman drove him to feel inhuman, then this act must seal his damnation.
In the film’s conclusion, Ephraim climbs the stairs of the lighthouse, opens the lantern door, and is subjected to what I can only describe as mesmerizing horror. We never see what’s behind the door because what’s most important is how Ephraim is affected by witnessing it. He tumbles down the stairs, and in the final scene he is in the process of being disemboweled by seagulls.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire, a knowledge meant only for the gods. For his treachery, Prometheus was punished by Zeus to have his liver eternally eaten by an eagle. Recalling this myth in the film’s last shot, we are left to wonder how Ephraim’s actions echo his Greek counterpart. Like Prometheus, Ephraim was proud enough to believe he could supplant those who held power over him. He dared to become something more than his lowly station, but when he eliminated all obstacles and climbed the lighthouse to claim his prize (the source of the light being his promethean fire), he was deemed unworthy.
In an earlier discussion between the two wickies, Thomas comments on a first impression he made of Ephraim, noting that he was worried he might be the sort to split Thomas’ head in two. But having since amended that impression, he feels Ephraim may someday be worthy of maintaining the lighthouse’s lamp, the indication being that someone who commits inhuman acts cannot behold the light. Thomas later comes to understand the source of Ephraim’s guilty conscious, and Thomas eventually becomes yet another victim of him.
In the scene where Thomas curses Ephraim for something as simple as holding the former’s cooking in low regard, we catch a sort of prophecy. When he tells Ephraim that he will become nothing more than the sea, it foreshadows Ephraim’s punishment on the rocks. The gulls are human and animal both, they represent the part of himself that Ephraim hates most, and they are consuming him. They are souls lost to the sea, but he won’t even become one of them, his transgressions are so high.
So what does it mean to be part of the sea? What kind of punishment is this and how is it significant for Ephraim? Lighthouses are built and maintained to keep sailors away from them. If operated correctly, they should ward away anything on the water. So, to become part of the sea is to never to reach the source of the light, essentially to be exiled from land entirely. For eternity, Ephraim will be neither human nor beast but part of a mass that can never conceive of the light, the power, the freedom he so desperately wants to obtain. He will not be human or even sub-human. He will never have that house in the woods where he is his own master, far from it. He will forever be a vast emptiness.