The Lighthouse (2019) explained: mercury, madness and murder


Art house horror or gothic chiller? This lighthouse yarn borrows from the myths – and madness – of ancient sailors. Here’s how it works.

What is The Lighthouse about?

New England, 1860s: Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) joins grizzled keeper Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe) to tend a lighthouse. But with both men guarding secrets, it isn’t long before paranoia and isolation get the better of their sanity.

What to make of The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse is an odd kettle of fish best summed up by its paradoxes. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star, yet that’s as close as the plot gets to mainstream Hollywood. And while there are art house horror leanings, the story is largely told through symbols – but we’ll get to that.

The black-and-white cinematography speaks to gothic noir, all at once jarring, disturbing, bleak and utterly beguiling, a bit like the mermaids (sirens) that feature throughout. We’ll get to that, too.

In fact, The Lighthouse weaves a number of tales. If you’ll only stand for one, think of it as old-school psychological horror (think Poe or Henry James), in which madness and murder jostle for the upper hand.

There are undoubtedly some funny moments in the movie, too. It’s not a comedy as such, but there is a seam of jet black humour that runs throughout (see also The Happening).

For example, Winslow’s misadventures with the chamber pots, as well as the delirium of both men as insanity and drunkenness take hold. Monkey pump, you say? Exactly.

Madness and murder

There isn’t so much a twist ending to The Lighthouse as a string of increasingly unstable revelations. These run parallel to the men’s rising insanity, so it’s hard to know exactly how much can be trusted.

  • Winslow admits he caused the death of his former boss, then stole his identity before running away to the desolate lighthouse.
  • Winslow discovers the body of the keeper’s former first mate, the man he’s there to replace. Wake has stuffed the body into a lobster pot – but did this really happen or is Winslow imagining it? There are parallels, too, with the real-life tragedy of The Smalls Lighthouse.
  • Wake says Winslow is mad, and that days and even weeks are missing from his recollection. But is it Winslow who’s mad, or Wake? Which of their stories do you trust more?
  • Finally, Winslow murders Wake and steals the key to the lighthouse lamp. What he sees there drives him out of all reason. He falls onto the rocks – and is eaten alive by the gulls.

The film implies isolation drives the men insane, but the myth of the mad wickie (lighthouse keeper) owes something to the mercury formerly used to maintain lighthouse lamps. One of the symptoms of mercury poisoning is madness.

However, parts of the film suggest both men are already mad when they get to the island, and are only play-acting at sanity. This seems likely given Wake’s weird attachment to the lamp (and, therefore, mercury poisoning), and Winslow’s already guilty conscience.

What’s in the lighthouse?

The lighthouse lamp is a source of madness and temptation – or rather, what each man imagines is in there drives them mad.

This is where the film (intentionally? accidentally?) parallels The Lord of the Rings.

The lighthouse beacon resembles the fiery Eye of Sauron, while Winslow and Wake take it in turns to obsess over ‘their precious’. Both argue about tending to the light, coming to see it in almost female and sexual terms, or as something of potent desirability.

Winslow, with shades of Frodo Baggins, undertakes a journey into magic and myth, seeing gods and monsters – and mermaids – everywhere.

The two men display a warped version of the friendship at the heart of Tolkien’s fantasy. They despise and misuse each other, yet Wake still calls out, “don’t leave me!”.

Ultimately Winslow murders Wake to gain control of the lamp. Paradoxically, this source of light causes each man’s heart to wither.

We never see what exactly is inside the lamp, but it’s not hard to conclude there’s nothing magical about it at all.

Instead it stands for the delirium of isolation. There’s nothing on the island other than the lighthouse: no comfort, no hope, little companionship. The men’s fever dreams about the lamp come to fill in for these absences, the same way Winslow’s mermaid fantasy fills in for his sexual frustration.

The symbolism

The Lighthouse is stuffed with myths and symbols. Here’s a selection.

  • The Lighthouse often represents sexual desire and sex. It’s a penis-like structure, which the two men worship, and is often shown battered by orgiastic waves. This hints both at their struggle with abstinence, and their sexual / abusive relationship with each other.
  • Winslow’s mermaid delusions similarly speak of sexual frustration. It also connects with ancient sea mythology – of the sirens that lured sailors to their death through maddening song. Less romantically, seeing mermaids at sea was likely a sign of dehydration or insanity.
  • When Winslow arrives at the lighthouse he finds a mermaid statue hidden in his mattress. This may be Wake’s way of ‘cursing’ Winslow to madness, the same way he removed his previous mate (and competitor for the lighthouse).
  • Tom Wake is a sailor at heart, wedded to the sea and the lighthouse in equal measure. The younger man first imagines him as a Kraken, a tentacled sea monster (again, there are associations with sex). After Winslow confesses his secret he comes to see him as Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, who has the power to destroy him.
  • Wake believes gulls are the souls of dead sailors. Like the mermaid, this comes to be a bad omen for Winslow. He attacks one when it irritates him, and later bashes it to death.
  • The birds get their revenge in the final scene, when we see one eating Winslow alive. This is the Prometheus story of Greek mythology. Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humans. His punishment was to have his liver pecked by birds for all eternity.
  • The fog horn which resounds throughout the film mirrors Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart. The noise slowly sends Winslow insane. The foghorn – a kind of siren (sound) – mirrors the screeching of the siren (mermaid) in this respect.
  • Also note that The Tell-Tale Heart is narrated by a deluded murderer who claims to be quite sane.

The foghorn – a kind of siren (sound) – mirrors the screeching of the siren (mermaid). Both slowly send Winslow insane

The functions of black and white

A lack of colour might sound like an absence, but the black-and-white visuals add something to this story.

Without colour to soften it, the film evokes a sense of the bleak landscape and loneliness. At other times, some shots are like artworks in their own right: these tell wordless side stories alongside the main plot.

And without colour to distract, all the attention is on what we see and hear on-screen: each movement and facial expression (and fart…) conveying something subtle but unmistakable.

The black-and-white, pared back setting is also one step removed from the muted palette of gothic horror cinema (The Ring, The Others). It feels quite appropriate to the sense of claustrophobia.

And more than anything, it adds a sense of disorientation, wrong-footing audiences used to relying on colour AND dialogue to make sense of stories.

Seeing the light

Whether cursed by Wake or the bird he wrongs, Winslow ultimately gets what he wants: to be the keeper of the light. But in another sense, he becomes the older man he despises.

He arrives on the island as a taciturn teetotaller, but ends – like his boss – dangerously inebriated. Like Wake, he murders his crew mate to take control of the light.

Wake goads the younger man by calling him ‘dog’ rather than by his name (which he doesn’t even ask). Winslow gets revenge when he puts Wake on a leash and makes him act like one.

The symbolic story – told through the film’s fleeting images – suggests a sexual affair between the two. At times there’s even some tenderness to it, and yet the whole construct is one of delirium, loneliness and abject alcoholism.

In this sense, the film resolves as a tragedy and bitterness. What really happens on the island is lost to imagination and fever dreams, in which the only thing each truly desires is the light. But, as bright lights have a habit of doing, it blinds them to everything else.

The Lighthouse (2019), directed by Robert Eggers

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Picture credit: Tyler Maddigan