The Lighthouse. 2019. Directed by Robert Eggers. Screenplay by Max & Robert Eggers.
Starring Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, & Valeriia Karaman.
A24 / New Regency Pictures / RT Features
Rated 14A / 109 minutes
Fantasy / Horror / Mystery
When I first witnessed The Witch it was obvious to me Robert Eggers was a singular voice in horror with an attention to detail, particularly for period piece aspects, and a knack for building terrifying tension via great storytelling. No surprise I found myself enthralled by The Lighthouse, another disturbing and gorgeous period film that involves everything from folklore and Greek myth, to the queer anxieties of 19th-century men trapped in traditionally hetero-male spaces.
Eggers trades early modern America for the mid-19th century, moving from dark, witchy woods to potentially monster-infested waters. The Lighthouse tells the tale of Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), two wickies that wind up trapped on an island in New England during the late 1800s while tending to a lighthouse. In the beginning, they get along fine enough. As their time progresses, and they’re eventually cut off from the rest of the world by a nasty storm on the ocean, they begin a downward psychological spiral in tandem that will test their limits.
The film is akin to a critical theorist diving back into 19th century literature, depicting how a collision of work and the domestic turns what might otherwise appear as a story of steely heterosexual masculinity into one of queerness / Otherness. Eggers does this by presenting a queer struggle, especially on Winslow’s part, and focusing on Othered bodies like the mermaid/siren and a sexualised octopus tentacle. Alongside queer themes, Eggers takes a timely look at the generational divide between young and old through use of Greek mythology, depicting Wake as a Protean keeper of the light and Winslow as Prometheus attempting to steal it. The Lighthouse‘s mix of folklore, myth, and queer identity makes for perfectly dark fantasy crossed with horror, and its themes challenge heteronormative narratives of the 19th century.
“Yer fond of me lobster,
In the 19th century, people largely subscribed to the idea of the separate spheres theory. This propped up Victorian patriarchal ideology, dividing the public and private sphere between men and women. The worlds of work and the domestic were clearly demarcated by gendered lines: a man’s role was to work and provide, whereas a woman’s role was perceived as being the homemaker.
The Lighthouse, set at the end of the 1800s, is a prime example of how the work sphere transforms into one of domesticity, becoming a porous space where identity is fluid because typically gendered lines have been figuratively crossed. This intrusion of domesticity on work queers the heterosexual male space. Wake and Winslow— I’ll keep referring to Winslow as such, because that’s who he claims to be for most the story— are stuck in a relatively small place together as lighthouse keepers. By virtue of the job itself they’re thrust into a space that takes on qualities of work and domesticity, side by side. Early on, Wake and Winslow’s roles are queered. The younger of the two proclaims he “never intended to be no housewife” after he’s given domestic cleaning tasks by his older counterpart. At the supper table, Wake slaps Winslow across the mouth, feeling bad immediately for the transgression like a typical abusive husband after beating his wife. Only the tip of this iceberg— yes, just the tip.
Any semblance of a usual male hierarchy is abandoned gradually as the film wears on— Wake and Winslow move fluidly between their respective dominant roles as the traditionally male seaman(/’semen’) work space becomes more and more queer. Wake tells Winslow he has “eyes bright as a lady” and that he’s “pretty as a picture.” He says he’s “wedded to this here life” as a wickie, calling the sea “a finer, truer, quieter wife than any live–blooded woman.” Winslow makes a toast at one point “to relief,” using decidedly sexual language suggestive of orgasm that articulates the homoerotic tension building between himself and Wake.
The best, and most comic, instance of queer subversion occurs after another dinner scene when Wake gets offended by Winslow not enjoying his food. The older wickie is clearly hurt by the younger suggesting his cooking’s no good, making their argument following supper into one reminiscent of a neglected housewife begging for warm attention from her ignorant husband. Wake gets cast in a feminine light, first when Winslow says he’s “giving orders like” a “school mom,” and again when he’s upset by Winslow’s food comments and the latter says: “Oh, don‘t be such an old bitch!”
The most deliciously queer moment occurs between the wickies after a night of drinking, when they find themselves slow dancing. Wake moves to kiss Winslow, prompting the younger of the two into violence, starting a fist fight— one of several instances of homophobic fear on Winslow’s part. Winslow displays queer anxiety on a number of occasions. Like when he’s masturbating in the shed with the mermaid figurine as if holding onto any semblance of ‘woman’ he can while stuck in a wholly male space: quick cuts show a mermaid’s vagina, also depicting an octopus tentacle penetrating what looks like the slimy orifice of another octopus. This sexually charged tentacle imagery symbolises Winslow’s homophobia, or, at the least, his anxieties about homosexual penetration by making the act appear so Other it’s literally monstrous to him.
“Boredom makes men to villains”
The frequent presence of Other bodies in The Lighthouse likewise queers traditionally hetero-male space, as well as symbolises the queer anxiety Winslow experiences during his time stuck in close proximity with Wake. The obsession Winslow has with the mermaid is our initial encounter with an Other body. He literally pulls a mermaid figurine from a labial hole in his mattress— a hole similar to the one he sees Wake using in his own bed, as he spies the old man humping away passionately. Worthy of note that the mermaid is specifically a mythological siren. The siren is, more often than not, a patriarchal image of male desire, or male fear considering they were described as hideous creatures luring seaman to their deaths in the earliest myths. The siren’s song is coded as danger, in contrast to a lighthouse siren signifying safety. If we think of these duelling images in terms of the film’s established symbolism, a female image is connected to danger/destruction and a male image (lighthouse as phallus) represents comfort and safety. The mermaid’s physicality becomes even more sexual once Winslow sees its vagina, after which he experiences sexual fantasies of himself thrusting into it, likened to the violent thrust of a harpoon.
And this sexual fantasy ties into his homoerotic desire towards Wake, too.
The tentacle is an image connected directly to Wake. Early on, Winslow watches the older man from below the lighthouse’s top platform. He sees him bathing naked in the light, then an oozing tentacle slides across the floor above. In a later scene, Winslow’s sexual confusion is at its most frantic when he’s on top of Wake as they fight. He sees the old man first as his father, then the mermaid, and as he’s about to lay a hot kiss on the half-fish/half-woman, he sees Wake again. Except Wake appears to Winslow as his Protean self, laughing and wearing coral for a crown, and behind them tentacles wiggle wildly, wrapping around Winslow’s neck. This scene again links Wake with the tentacle. So when we revisit Winslow’s masturbation, and the cut of what I’ve colloquially dubbed ‘the tentacle fuck,’ this moment clearly further depicts Winslow’s queer anxiety and a deep-seated fear of being penetrated by Wake.
The folklore and mythology of the mermaid/siren is part of a larger use of myth by Eggers. The Lighthouse does great work showing a divide in generations focused around work. Today, we’re so caught up with the media’s constant talk of millennials v. boomers, it’s timely for Eggers to tell a story about an older man and a younger man trapped together at work and at odds. Wake sees Winslow and his generation as vastly different from his own when it comes to work ethic, in spite of the audience watching the latter bust his ass working every day. In contrast, Winslow has daddy issues and projects them onto Wake as a surrogate father figure, stressed by a couple shots throughout where he has visions of his dad. Another layer is added to the story with an allegory about a refusal to pass the torch from one generation to the next. Wake’s the controlling Proteus figure, and Winslow is Prometheus paying a horrific price for usurping power.
“Do you feel shame when you lie with a woman?”
There are a bunch of reasons why The Lighthouse is a great movie, and why it made not only my Best of 2019 list but also my Best of the Decade list, too. One of those is because Eggers expertly fills in an interesting premise and story with allegory, myth, and rich symbolism. Dafoe and Pattinson give two of 2019’s greatest performances. Their chemistry is a palpable cross of angry intensity and ever present homoeroticism that grips your attention fully, regardless of how you feel about the plot in the end.
Herman Melville is listed with Sarah Orne Jewett as a source for the screenplay’s dialogue in the credits. Recently I gave a talk on Moby-Dick during a student colloquium, digging into the famous American novel’s queer elements, and it’s been assessed for decades by contemporary theorists since the 1970s/80s as a text full of queerness (many scholars, myself included, believe Melville was bisexual). It feels appropriate Melville’s cited by Eggers— the author would be proud. The Lighthouse operates in many of the same ways Moby-Dick does: each text striving to pull the repressed veil from depictions of close male relationships across the 19th century.