This article contains major The Lighthouse spoilers.
It’s a haunting final image, and one that gnaws at anyone who studied Greek myth. Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow/Thomas Howard/whatever he calls himself lies on his back, delighted by the unimaginable secrets he gleaned by staring into the lighthouse’s beacon. But that rapture was moments ago—perhaps even a lifetime. Now he is sprawled out along a barren seashore as seagulls and other birds of prey peck at his stomach, feasting on the entrails within. Presumably one fowl creature is even taking bites of liver as Pattinson’s protagonist chuckles at his final damnation. Just as Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake promised him in their earlier graveside chat, the younger man’s fate would be downright Promethean.
This is an ending rife with allusion to the literary foundations of Western civilization, as well as the more recent nautical mythology that deems killing a seabird as equivalent to biting from Eve’s apple. Thomas the Younger, alias Winslow, failed to heed his elder’s warnings and then tasted the forbidden fruit by looking into the light. But unlike the delicious ending to Robert Eggers’ previous horror movie, The Witch, The Lighthouse ending is neither straightforward or altogether clear. It might be a movie that basks in black and white photography, but Eggers savors ambiguity until the final frame here. Is Pattinson’s protagonist crazy or is he doomed by primordial forces outside of his control?
The easiest explanation is of course that the Pattinson character lost his mind while trapped in a perpetual storm with Dafoe’s old man for weeks or months—if he were not already mad to begin with. While the backstory of the man who introduces himself as Ephraim Winslow is intentionally unspooled in a muddled manner, we can ultimately surmise his identity from his drunken confession: he’s Thomas Howard. “Tommy,” as Wake refers to him thereafter, only became a wickie because his first blue collar job as a lumberjack ended in ruin. Like his relationship with Wake, Howard apparently had a cantankerous rivalry with his foreman in New England’s vast forests up north.
Howard claims the real Ephraim Winslow died by an accident—drowned in a river when he became trapped beneath floating logs that Tommy Howard didn’t warn him about—however, that seems suspect. Why would he feel the need to take Winslow’s name and run to a seafaring life he clearly has little interest in if his foreman died by accident? Notably when he arrives at the island, he discovers the previous “second” wickie working under Wake left a mermaid figurine hidden in his mattress, and the lonely Howard immediately begins fantasizing about her and “real” mermaids at night. Almost every time his mind is drawn in this direction, the editing is intercut with shots of the real Ephraim Winslow, a blond foreman about to die. It’s the back of his head here or a floating log there when Howard masturbates to the figurine, or it’s of Winslow’s submerged body when Howard first dreams of his aquatic siren: his two greatest fantasies always come together.
What happened is probably close to Wake’s early speculation about why this young man is on the island after working as a lumberjack: his foreman felt threatened by the way Little Tommy carried an axe. And Tommy Howard likely wedged it in him, just as he might have swung at it Thomas Wake. Aye, while the film shows Wake as the madman with an axe who smashes their launch, in the following scene Wake suggests Pattinson’s character was the one who cut up the rowboat and took a swing at him. There is every reason to assume that Pattinson’s Tommy is an unreliable narrator, and just as his dreams about a mermaid are a fantasy, so too could the ways he resentfully views authority figures like Wake or the real Winslow.
But the beauty of this reading is that if you take a literal interpretation of The Lighthouse, Wake is no more reliable than Howard. For instance, Wake knows that a ship is set to relieve them after the first four weeks on the island, and yet he makes sure they get blackout drunk the night before. There is also the likelihood that he is both attracted to Howard and repulsed by him. Consider Wake’s sexual ambiguity as he uses his seniority to force Tommy into the domesticity role of cleaning the house and scrubbing the floor. In Pattinson’s most petulant scene, he whines that he did not come here to be anyone’s wife. And yet, Wake forces Tommy to literally whitewash the lighthouse—making him polish the phallic shaped structure Wake refers to as “my beauty.” He also refers to the lighthouse as if it were a woman, and he was wedded to her. But as Dafoe laughed in our interview, “There’s a little woman in all of us.”
When Howard’s refusals of playing Wake’s games are coupled with his breaking of Wake’s golden rule—wanting to see the lighthouse lantern up close—there is enough here to suggest Wake is framing Howard as crazy as a pretense to have him fired without pay. After all, Wake is always the initiate of the heavy drinking, yet he then writes in his journal that his second is habitually drunk. When he asks Tommy, “How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks, two days? Help me to recollect,” he is pushing Howard toward doubting his own sanity. Maybe he does this because Howard won’t play along or maybe because Howard really did discover the head of his predecessor in a lobster net? Either way, Wake doesn’t seem to realize that Howard’s a murderer who has a deadly breaking point.
This is apparently Pattinson’s preferred reading. Eggers told us in an interview that “Robert Pattinson said to me before agreeing to this, ‘I don’t want to make a movie about a magical lighthouse. I want to make a movie about a fucking crazy person.’” And yet, I find this reading boring and reductive of the film’s mythological imagery. Robert Eggers himself seems to think there’s more to it too, as he laughed about the ending, “Why didn’t I shoot what he sees [in the light]? Because I don’t want my audiences to experience the same fate as him!”
My alternative preference of the ending is that the lighthouse is magical… and it represents Thomas Howard’s personal version of Hell. Or at least Hades.
Once again, it’s likely that Thomas Howard murdered the real Ephraim Winslow before becoming a wickie, because he has no interest in the life or respect for Wake’s seafaring superstitions. He outright defies Wake’s insistence that you should not kill a seabird since they’re allegedly the souls of sailors who were drowned. And yet, the way that one specific seagull bedevils Howard, pecking on his window at night and taunting him during his daily duties, suggests there is an intelligence there greater than a simple bird. Granted, Howard is an unreliable narrator, but when he slaughters the seagull, the wind immediately changes directions and a violent nor’easter begins its approach.
A doubting Thomas might shrug that off as coincidence, but if that were so, how did the slumbering Wake know of Tommy’s transgression? In a scene of tremendous foreshadowing, Wake takes initially hilarious umbrage at Howard’s insult of his cooking. With the fire and fury of Macbeth, Wake reveals he knows that the younger man killed a seabird, which invited this storm. He then calls on the might of Triton, the Grecian God of the Sea and son of Poseidon, to smite “Ephraim Winslow.” He demands Ephraim be “fed on by the souls of sailors” until there is nothing left and “Winslow be no more.”
Winslow/Howard then later envisions his tormentor as Triton, complete with a tentacle for a tail, as he beats him half to death. He also imagines him to be the mermaid and the real Ephraim Winslow, but do recall that Howard first saw Wake’s tentacle tail when he spied on the old man in the tower, well before Wake prayed to the sea god. And then after beating Wake up and attempting to bury him alive, the elder warns Tommy that “like all the others” who killed a seabird, when he looks into the light, he’ll be damned to a Promethean fate. And so he is. He is fed on by the souls of sailors… or at least the seabirds they’ve become.
Indeed, ancient Greek myth tells us that Prometheus defied the will of Zeus when he stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to man—teaching us violence. As punishment for claiming knowledge that was not meant for him, Prometheus was chained to a rock forevermore where each day an eagle would pluck out and eat his liver, and each night the organ would grow back again.
Whether there’s a literal Greek god tormenting Howard, or an entity taking that form just as it becomes the mermaid (“there’s a little woman in all of us”), is of little consequence. Either way, it’s trapping Howard in a cyclical Hell like Prometheus with the eagle, or Sisyphus with the boulder he is doomed to push up a hill for eternity. Howard is similarly forced to drag a kerosene barrel up and down the lighthouse at Wake’s beck and call. And all with the futile intimation that this has happened before. Wake teases he’s had apparently numerous seconds who’ve looked into the light after killing a seabird, and Howard on some level knows this to be true. What is the first thing he does when he enters his sleeping quarters at the beginning of the movie? Find the hole in the mattress with the figurine of a mermaid. She’s his lone feminine companion in this accursed place, left to him by the man who last slept in that bed.
Further Howard has no love for the sea. He hints this to Wake when he says he hopes to earn enough money to one day buy a home in the north, likely closer to the forest from whence he came. Intriguingly, when I spoke with Eggers he said, “To be honest with you, the forest resonates with me more, like instinctually, than the sea does.”
It is fun to speculate that Thomas Howard never even worked as a wickie, and this barren, treeless rock is his punishment for murdering the real Winslow. Wake even appears to be little more than a damnable combination of Tommy Howard’s foreman and Tom’s own future, hence the foreboding early scene where the old man reveals to the young man his name is Thomas. “Call me Tom.” However, I suspect Howard did work in a lighthouse under a false name, and he did kill a seabird… or rather the soul of a sailor like Thomas Wake. He took the axe to him, just as Wake presciently suspected Howard did to his lumberjack foreman, and just as he does to Wake’s skull at the end of movie. And by taking a sea man’s life, he’s condemned to a cyclical Hell of reliving that experience.
How long has he been on this rock? Five weeks? Two days? The truth is Pattinson’s character cannot recollect. At least not until he stares into the lighthouse’s omnipotent eye, and like a Lovecraftian hero who sees the horrible truth of his ugly universe, he cannot handle the revelation. Only then can Howard know how long he’s been trapped on that island, and the truth drives him to once again be consumed by the vengeful sea.