With The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers gives audiences a follow-up to The Witch that is weirder, more creative, and full of farts - and it all careens towards a suitable wild ending. In 2015, Robert Eggers made a serious splash with his directorial debut, the historical horror film The Witch. Released by A24 the following year, the movie made back ten times its $4 million budget and was widely declared to be not only one of the best horror films of the year, but one of the scariest movies ever made. Eggers set himself a serious challenge in creating a sophomore title that would live up to those lofty expectations while being entirely its own thing. Fortunately, with The Lighthouse, he's done that and then some.
The Lighthouse premiered in Director’s Fortnight at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the International Federation of Film Critics prize. Once again distributed by A24, the movie has racked up plenty of critical acclaim, and it remains one of the year's most delightfully bizarre and endlessly creative movies. The story follows two lighthouse keepers who are forced to work together for several weeks at an isolated lighthouse separated from civilization. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is the cranky old-hand who adheres to superstition and drinks heavily. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is new to the job and has little time for its endless drudgery or the company of his colleague. It doesn't take long for paranoia, delusions, and an understandable fear of seagulls to kick in.
Audiences will inevitably be unnerved and entranced by the alluring experience of watching The Lighthouse. It’s a film whose influences are equal parts David Lynch, Tarkovsky, Lovecraft, and Moby Dick. The movie refuses to hold the viewer’s hand and leaves much of its narrative up to interpretation. Here’s what to know about The Lighthouse, its violent ending, and some of its stranger moments.
What Happened in The Lighthouse
The lion’s share of the tension in The Lighthouse comes from the relationship between Wake and Winslow, which turns from friendly to sinister on a dime. Wake seems slightly off-kilter but largely used to the monotony of lighthouse keeping, whereas Winslow is easily agitated by what he thought would be a much simpler job. Slowly, it becomes clear to Winslow that Wake may have gone mad during their shift if he wasn't already mad to begin with. Wake seems worshipful, even sexually obsessed, with the light of the lighthouse, which he refuses to let Winslow near, something that becomes another source of tension between them.
It is also revealed, during one of many drinking sessions, that Winslow is not who he says he is. In reality, he is Thomas Howard, a former lumberjack whose last job ended in a disaster involving the real Ephraim Winslow that may or may not have been his fault. His lackadaisical relationship with the truth soon reveals to the audience that it may not be Wake who is the crazy one.
Of course, neither man can fully be trusted. Wake’s own past seems suspect and his obsessive focus on Winslow/Howard veers between repulsed and possibly sexual. The night before they are set to be picked up and returned home, Wake gets Winslow blind drunk, ensuring that they miss the ship sent to collect them. Winslow becomes convinced Wake is setting him up to be fired for incompetence, which would mean he wouldn’t get paid for his work. Wake does exhibit gaslighting terms, such as trying to make Winslow doubt how much time has passed, but when the audience can’t be sure who, if anyone, is telling the truth, it’s easy to become embroiled in that paranoia.
What’s With the Farting?
No auteur is too good for a fart joke, and Robert Eggers happily drives that point home in The Lighthouse. Amid the unnerving tone, the hallucinogenic leaps of logic, and the leads’ descents into madness, Willem Dafoe’s character is also a chronic farter (the actor claims that the split between real farts and ones added in post-production is about half and half). It’s one of the things that drives Winslow round the bend, perhaps even more so than the possible gaslighting and endless drudgery of his occupation. There may be a deeper thematic reason for all the farts, but the main reason they’re there is that Eggers finds them funny!
The Lighthouse is a very bleak comedy, which differentiates it from The Witch. Indeed, it’s with that first fart that the audience realizes this movie is going in a far stranger direction than Eggers’s predecessor (there are also plenty of references to masturbation, suitably keeping the tone low when the occasion calls for it.) In an interview with Vice, Eggers noted how keen he was to jump between seemingly clashing tones and how farting oddly helped that process:
“The movie is vulgar and over-the-top and showy. It's on the nose in many ways, but that's what we were after. The intention behind The Witch was to be very restrained. I think that story, while it sometimes annoys me, needed to take itself incredibly seriously. But with this, we wanted to be able to laugh at misery. I liked the idea that you sit down to watch The Lighthouse and you think, 'F**k, I didn't mean to walk into a Hungarian art house movie,' and then Willem farts and you're like, 'Oh, there's hope!'”
What The Lighthouse's Ending Means
After Winslow discovers that Wake has been keeping extensive documentation of his apparent misdeeds, the two have their biggest fight yet and things get physical. During their punch-up, Winslow sees Wake apparently transformed into a sea-god, complete with tentacles and a horn of coral. He seems to have taken the shape of Proteus, whom Homer referred to as "Old Man of the Sea", the son of Poseidon and a frequent feature in poetry by writers like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Milton. He’s also a shape-shifter, which fits in well with Wake’s sudden change.
Winslow kills Wake with a shovel and makes his way to the previously untouchable light of the lighthouse that Wake had previously forbidden him from approaching. Eggers has admitted to being inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, which suggests that the lighthouse itself could be some sort of gateway to another dimension of evil or an eldritch abomination itself. It could also have been inspired by the Pharos of Alexandria, a lighthouse that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Whatever the case, when Winslow stares into the light, he goes mad and seems to burn as he laughs maniacally.
Whatever unimaginable secrets the light had to bestow on him, they are never shared with the audience and his ultimate fate is left in decidedly ambiguous terms. Winslow then wakes up naked on the shores with birds pecking at his stomach, including the one seagull that has taunted him for the entire movie. To continue to the Greek mythology angle of the story, if Wake is Proteus then it seems that Winslow is Prometheus, the man who stole fire from the gods and was sentenced to have his liver pecked out every day as a sentence. Winslow tried to take the fiery power of the lighthouse for himself, stealing it from its rightful carer and was appropriately punished. Proteus and Prometheus never met in Greek mythology but they feel like fascinating fits for The Lighthouse, a story about power, generational divides, and the almighty force of things that mere humans cannot truly fathom. If Winslow is Prometheus then perhaps the ending is hinting that this is his eternal fate, to live out this monstrous cycle over and over again, either as punishment for gazing into the light or for killing the real Winslow.
It could all simply be in his head, the smothering guilt for killing an innocent man, or maybe there are supernatural forces at play beyond his control. The truth is that The Lighthouse is strong enough a film to fit any interpretation the audience sees fit. They could all be true or none of them and it does nothing to dilute the fascinating experience of being overwhelmed by Eggers’s work. All of this ambiguity and the artistic craft behind it is what makes The Lighthouse one of the year’s best films.