Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe get wet.
By Marty Gatto
Robert Eggers’ slow-building, psychotic, occasionally homoerotic new film The Lighthouse is a masterpiece. Following his 2016 debut The Witch, Eggers has stirred the proverbial waters with his two-man horror period piece. The Lighthouse, written by both Eggers brothers, details the story of two crusty lighthouse keepers played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.
Some of the most fascinating things about this film are its implicit or explicit references to literature. This is what I will primarily be talking about in this article and SPOILER ALERT I am unapologetically going to reference the entire plot. The film begins with shots of the two on a ship cleaving its way through the water towards the lighthouse in the distance. There is no ham-fisted exposition. Instead, details are slowly dropped here and there about why the two men are here. Slowly, we learn that Robert Pattinson has been enlisted to complete various chores for Willem Dafoe, a crotchety old seaman with a hell of a pirate accent. Throughout, Pattinson fetishizes a mermaid carving, violently kills a seagull, and obsesses over the light at the top of the lighthouse that Dafoe (who is, possibly, a tentacle monster) himself fetishizes. In the end, Pattinson physically dominates and kills Dafoe, sees the light, falls down the lighthouse and is picked at by seagulls while still alive.
Probably the most important reference to literature in the film is the explicit reference to Prometheus. At the end when Pattinson is burying Dafoe alive, Dafoe specifically references Prometheus in some of his last mad ramblings. The myth of Prometheus, first referenced in Hesiod’s Theogony, details the story of a Titan who defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to man. As punishment, the god was chained to a rock where every day an eagle would come to eat his liver and every day it would grow back. Dafoe’s invocation of Prometheus foreshadows Pattinson’s theft of fire (light) and consumption by birds as punishment.
The other integral reference to literature in the film is the implicit reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge about a seaman who kills an albatross at sea. The albatross is considered a good luck sign, and the crew is punished for its death with stagnant winds, starvation, and death. This mirrors The Lighthouse in several ways.
Dafoe, early on, warns Pattinson that it’s “bad luck to kill a seabird.” Later, he states that this is because the seagulls contain the souls of dead seamen. Pattinson doesn’t listen and, quite horrifically, bashes a seagull’s skull in. Following this, Pattinson becomes trapped on the lighthouse’s island due to weather and the two run out of rations, much like in Coleridge’s poem.
Next, we should talk about mermaids. Pattinson, upon arriving, discovers a wooden carving of a mermaid hidden in his bed. Later, he learns that the man he has replaced went mad with delusions about the light atop the lighthouse. Presumably, the carving was his predecessor’s.
Throughout the film, Pattinson pleasures himself to the mermaid carving. As time goes on and the lines between sanity and madness become blurred, Pattinson more and more frequently encounters an actual, beautiful mermaid in what can only be described as “masturbation dream sequences.” The mermaid, too, is no Ariel. She cannot speak. Instead, she only emits high-pitched inhuman shrieks. Nevertheless, her psychosexual grip on Pattinson seems more and more to pull him towards ultimate doom.
In this context, the mermaid seems to represent one of the famous sirens from Homer’s Odyssey. The sirens in Homer’s Odyssey are creatures that lure sailors to their death with their irresistible song. While Homer’s description of the sirens does not include “mermaid” features, it seems like a contemporary trope to depict sirens as mermaids or beautiful, water-dwelling women. Eggers uses this myth to fashion a psychosexual siren. This siren may have had a role in Pattinson’s predecessor’s madness as well, since it is his predecessor’s mermaid carving that induces a “mermaid fetish” of sorts.
Finally, let’s return to Dafoe’s last mad ramblings. As he is being buried alive the man references “Protean forms.” Proteus, in Homer’s Odyssey, is a shape shifting sea-god. In order to gain knowledge on how to return home, Menelaus must capture the god. This theme is translated to the bizarre relationship between Dafoe and Pattinson. Dafoe is psychologically abusive and mercurial, but ultimately becomes overpowered by Pattinson (who makes him bark, roll over, and walk on a leash). The theme of “protean forms” is especially notable in the unsettling shots of unexplained tentacles.
The Lighthouse is a must-see for any fan of horror. The film is extremely enigmatic and going into it with knowledge of the plot and literary background won’t help answer the unanswerable questions it posits. Nevertheless, the film is worth seeing if not for its literary background, then for its Kubrick-esque shots and brilliant acting. It certainly left me eagerly anticipating another Eggers feature.
Image Source: Vox.com.