Have you ever watched something, and immediately wanted to watch it again? This film was exactly that for me. It is so rich in symbolism and so dense with nods to other stories, elements and film productions that it really get the brain ticking. It is a film that sucks you and a leaves you dumbfounded at the end.
I am mainly going to be discussing the storyline and themes in this article, so if you don’t want me to give it all away to you, I suggest you look away now (but as ever please come back and tell me what you thought of the film).
The long and short of this story is, a lighthouse keeper crew set to their shift – Thomas (William Dafoe) and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson). Thomas is the lead keeper who takes the primary shift of looking after the light, while Ephraim is left to all the other chores during the day. The day shift is backbreaking work lugging coal, cleaning the cistern and all the mechanisms for the light, cleaning the living quarters and fixing anything that is broken. Thomas appears to be little help, and doesn’t appear to ever sleep, as he watches over Ephraim during the day, always with a story or a badging comment. Ephraim asks Thomas why his second left the lighthouse, and we discover that he died, not before going completely mad, and ranting about how the light is the salvation.
Ephraim is taunted by seagulls, and is reprimanded when he attempts to shoo the bird with a lump of coal, being told that it is bad luck to kill a seagull as they carry the souls of dead sailors.
Ephraim isn’t allowed near the light or the captain’s log, which leads to an air of contempt towards Thomas, as they develop a love/hate relationship. Over dinner one night, Ephraim discloses that he was a logger before taking the job as the new second, and Thomas tries to press him on why he left that industry. Ephraim maintains he just wanted a fresh start and this job would accrue good earnings. Thomas doesn’t buy the “same old boring story”, but they move on.
Ephraim finds Thomas “relieving some tension” in front of the light, and as the seamen falls through the grated floor, Ephraim sees tentacles writhing around the light, and runs to a lower floor.
One morning, on finding the water coming out of the pump is tainted, Ephraim goes down to the cistern and finds a dying seagull has fallen in it, another lands and screeches in his face, to which he grabs the seagull by the throat and beats it to death against a rock (don’t worry, no seagulls were actually harmed).
From here, all hell breaks loose. The two men are meant to leave the lighthouse as their four week shift is up, but the weather turns and with no way to get them off the rock, the pair are stuck to weather the storm. Ephraim has more visions of mermaids and other such odd images.
The pair drink a lot, and as the storm reaches a pinnacle, Ephraim unveils that isn’t his name, but it is also Thomas, and he took the job because he killed a man on the logging plant. For ease I will continue to call Thomas 2 Ephraim otherwise this is going to get really difficult…
Ephraim and Thomas have a drunken fight starting with the two barking “what” at each other and falling about in fits of laughter. When Thomas asks if Ephraim likes his cooking he doesn’t respond, and Thomas puts a curse of Poseidon on Ephraim.
Ephraim becomes more and more paranoid, trying to steal the keys to the light quarter and eventually trying to kill Thomas, before trying to escape off the rock, only for Thomas to break the lifeboat, and blame Ephraim for doing it. Ephraim becomes enraged and tries to kill Thomas, then leads him to a hole in the ground outside, which he puts him in lightly buried. Then when back in the lighthouse, Thomas makes a return, hitting Ephraim in the arm with an axe. We next see Ephraim with the light, opening its glass to view the light directly. He screams into the light and falls down the stairs. The last shot is of Ephraim, naked lay on the ground outside, his innards and eyelids being eaten by seagulls.
I have left dirty great chunks out of this breakdown, as honestly there is nothing better that I could do, other than sit you all down and watch this film with you, but what I can do is discuss some of the theme and techniques which makes this film so great…
Let’s start with the way it is filmed. This is all in black and white, with a cropped frame. This is reminiscent of a Hitchcock movie, making the audience feel part of the action. It is uncomfortable and unnerving. The only long shots you see are that of the lighthouse which stands out on the island like… well I will come to that. There is a syncopated rhythm that runs in the background through the entirety of the film, being complied of the fog horn, the seagulls screeching, the wind howling the ticking of a clock and the mechanism of the light which is easily enough to drive anyone mad, without having the weight of death on their shoulders, which is a clever move from Eggers to really drive home the feeling of loneliness and distance.
The seagulls… we all know seagulls are insufferable birds, they screech and scream, and steal your ice cream when you are strolling along the seafront, but Eggers makes them the base of superstition within the film. Much like Hemmingway’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” where an albatross is killed and then hung around the neck of the killer, it is almost sacrilege to kill a seabird, because they will lead you to shore. The reason seagulls scream is a warning for the others of danger, they continually scream until the danger has passed. Seagulls are said to bear a grudge (if we are to believe the superstitions) and will trick sailors that harm them into the way of danger, making them either steer away from land or just into rocks… so when one is killed hell has no fury like a seagull scorned.
There are so many references to Greek Mythology I don’t know where to begin with it really. There are the elements of Poseidon, Triton and Proteus. Several times Thomas presents as Poseidon, and he puts the curse of Triton on to Ephraim during the cooking argument. Finally Proteus was known as the old man of the sea and in control of changes to its temperament, but he was also a fortune teller, who would only tell the truth to anyone who could catch him. He evades capture by shape shifting into many other forms such as octopus, mermaids and lobsters – I will come back to this as well. The death of Ephraim – is basically the punishment of Prometheus. After stealing fire from Zeus, he is tied to a rock for an eagle to eat his liver every day, for it to grow back every night, so that he can suffer his punishment again. Earlier in the film Thomas tells Ephraim that his previous second went mad, worshipping the light, like it would give him some kind of knowledge, much like the fire gave life to human. The final sequence is like Ephraim receives the wisdom of the light, which is all too much, in a blind way (quite literally I would imagine). I am skipping over the references to Sisyphus, and talking about the fact that Proteus came from the same place as the lighthouse at Alexandria…but it is right on in there.
Finally and this is the biggy I guess… Is Thomas actually real? Well despite my researching and reading many articles Eggers has left this completely ambiguous, but even in his interviews he does leave us some clues.
Fairly early on in the film, I suspected that Thomas might be Ephraim subconscious. He is belligerent and nitpicking and for a guy that is working the nightshift he is around an awful lot during the day. He also tells stories of things that are very similar to what has happened in Ephraim’s life – the second that died compared the the guy that was killed a the logging plant. As the film plays on, Thomas starts to be part of Ephraim’s visions presenting as Poseidon and Proteus, we also know that he saw an octopus up in the light floor when Thomas was supposed to be up there. Thomas tells a story of a lighthouse keeper who goes mad on a couple of occasions, making reference to one that was stuck on the island during a storm for 7 months – stateing at the end “You know your fate…”.
Later Thomas starts to say that Ephraim has done things that the audience sees Thomas doing, such as chopping up the lifeboat. This all leads me to believe that these two men are one and the same person, going through a madness that started when killing a guy on a logging plant, then taking a job on a remote island – killing their second, and slowly becoming increasingly mad. The final sequence could be seen as Ephraim actually committing suicide. So when he puts Thomas in the hole with the rope around his neck, and then later heads up to the light and screams, falling down the stairs and then ending up outside, it could be a reference to Ephraim hanging himself from the light floor balcony during the storm, and his body being ripped down, and then left to the fate of the birds…just not quite dead.
The clues that Eggers leave us in his interview is his allegiance to the work of Carl Jung. This talks about the 7 archetypes of man. If I incorporated all of this in to this article, it would be more like a book, but the one we are interested in is the shadow – our unseen self. I think that Thomas is Ephraim’s dark past, raising its head through the madness. I do find it interesting that Thomas appears to become more sane, the madder Ephraim seems in the film. Ephraim has past that he is desperately trying to escape from but his mind simply won’t let him. The fact that both are called Thomas, creates an identity crisis between the characters. Also Jung did like to see everything as a giant penis, so the lighthouse (told you I would get to it) is just the ultimate symbol of masculinity, hence all the solitary relief that goes on, and the homoertoic scenes.
This story is loosely based on a story of 2 lighthouse keepers who were in Wales, they became stuck, one went mad and one died (unclear if he was killed or just died as it is mostly folktale now), but it is the reason why after that incident they would send 3 men to man a lighthouse.
As ever this is only my take on what I have watched, and I really would welcome others thoughts. There are so many other elements I would have loved to have written about, but I really want to urge you to watch the film and make up your own minds.
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