Director Robert Eggers established himself as a fan of the ambiguous in his debut film The VVitch, and his sophomore effort The Lighthouse didn’t stray from that theme whatsoever. The movie was released on October 18, 2019, and was filmed entirely in black-and-white. All throughout the film, the viewer watches Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) completely unravel to the point where they can’t be sure what to believe is real or not.
The story follows two lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), who are tasked with attending to a lighthouse on a remote island. Within the first few scenes of the movie, Ephraim has visions of mermaids, which later develop into giant squid-like monsters and eventually into ghosts from his past. Whether or not the island itself is enchanted is completely up to the audience, and there are many scenes throughout the movie that may or may not have actually happened, depending on your interpretation of the film.
One of the most intriguing scenes, and the one that has sparked the greatest controversy, is the very last scene of the movie. However, before I dive into what I believe the meaning of the last scene is (and what director Robert Eggers has hinted at in an interview), here’s a general synopsis of the movie:
The Lighthouse Synopsis
The movie starts out with Ephraim and Thomas arriving on the island. First and foremost, Thomas, the elder of the two and more experienced lighthouse keeper, instructs Ephraim what his duties will be. The work he has Ephraim doing is backbreaking and miserable, and Thomas constantly berates him as he’s doing it. Meanwhile, Thomas spends most of his time either at the top of the lighthouse during the night or asleep during the day. As the work continues and the weather worsens, Ephraim grows more and more resentful towards Thomas.
Ephraim finds himself another foe as well. A pesky one-eyed seagull continually bothers him while he’s trying to sleep and trying to work. After Thomas sees him throw a rock at the bird, he cautions Ephraim that killing a seagull is bad luck, as they hold the souls of fallen sailors. As Thomas and the feathered fiend continue to harass Thomas, he seems to drift further and further from reality, having visions of tentacled monsters and mermaids who’ve washed ashore.
As Ephraim’s rage comes to a boil, he goes to see what’s wrong with the cistern and finds a dead seagull inside it. The one-eyed seagull then flies over, sits on top of the cistern, and starts squawking at Ephraim in a mocking manner. Unable to take the insult any longer, Ephraim grabs the seagull by the neck and bashes it into a pulp.
From there, things on the island grow far worse. The winds change and a massive storm comes through. Ephraim is supposed to be brought back to the mainland; however, the boat that is meant to get him apparently never arrives. As the storm intensifies, things start to get way more out of control than they already were. Ephraim and Thomas start drinking themselves into oblivion every night. Thomas farts a whole lot. Ephraim starts chugging liquor while he masturbates to a miniature statue of a mermaid. Entire weeks have apparently disappeared from Ephraim’s memory. All the food rations have been exhausted. It’s a certified shit-circus at this point.
After taking what must’ve been his hundredth swig of liquor that day, Ephraim reveals to Thomas that he isn’t actually Ephraim at all, but that his real name is Thomas Howard. The real Ephraim Winslow was a man whom he murdered and took his identity. Thomas Wake has some secrets of his own, however. It seems that all of the sea-tales he tells throughout the entire movie were all just fabrications, and he was never a sailor at all.
After much built-up tension, the younger Thomas beats up the older Thomas, forces him to act like a dog for a while, attempts to bury him alive, and then finally kills him with an ax to the face. Now alone on the island, Thomas Howard is free to go to the top of the lighthouse and see what Thomas Wake has been hiding from him all this time. When he finally sees the glowing lantern, he appears to be thrown into a fit of ecstasy and agony which ultimately causes him to fall down the stairs.
The audience is never able to see what was inside the lantern at the top of the lighthouse, and it’s clear that Robert Eggers wanted to leave that up for interpretation. That’s not the end of the movie, however. The final scene shows Thomas Howard with his innards spilling out being pecked to death by seagulls.
What does this all mean? Let’s take a look.
The entirety of The Lighthouse is riddled with allusions to Greek mythology. The mermaids that Ephraim continually sees are similar to the sirens from The Odyssey, which attempt to lead lost sailors to their death. Likewise, the mermaids seem to be coaxing Ephraim down a spiral staircase to insanity and ultimately death. The scene where Ephraim falls down the staircase could also be compared to the myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and ultimately fell to his death.
The myths that The Lighthouse mainly parallels, however, are those of Proteus and Prometheus.
Proteus, son of Poseidon and brother of Triton, is a shape-shifting old man of the sea who lives on the island of Pharos (according to The Odyssey) which was the famous site of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Thomas Wake is pretty obviously meant to represent Proteus, and he even acknowledges the parallel, saying, “Hark Triton, hark! Bellow, bid our father the Sea King rise from the depths full foul in his fury!” Wake also appears to Howard as a sea monster at one point, indicating his shape-shifting ability, at least in Howard’s mind.
In Greek mythology, Proteus is also portrayed as being all-knowing, but choosing to conceal his knowledge for his own benefit. In much the same way, Wake chooses to conceal his knowledge that Howard killed the seagull until the time came to use that knowledge in the midst of a heated argument.
Prometheus is most well known for being the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. The fire, which is often thought of as being representative of supreme knowledge, can be compared to the lantern at the top of the lighthouse, which Howard seeks to “steal” from Wake throughout the film. Therefore, we can imply that the lantern has some magical ability to grant supreme knowledge and Howard can be seen as a parallel to Prometheus.
As a punishment for stealing fire from the gods, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock and appeared each day as an eagle to feast on his innards. Knowing this, the very last scene of The Lighthouse is pretty clearly an allusion to this myth.
Greek mythology was not the only source of inspiration Robert Eggers drew from for this film, though. The idea that killing a seabird brings bad luck is pretty obviously drawn from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which the mariner kills an albatross and watches his entire crew die while stranded at sea shortly after.
What About the Lantern?
At many times during the film, it seemed as if Eggers wanted his allusions to Greek mythology and other literature to be abundantly obvious. That’s not to say that they didn’t serve the plot, though. In my opinion, the story flowed extremely well and incorporated these allusions seamlessly. The final scene of the movie illustrates that quite well. While it is an obvious reference to the Prometheus myth, it still works in the context of the movie, because all of the chaos that befell the two main characters was apparently spurred on by the killing of the seagull.
So while the question of what the last scene meant is pretty self-explanatory, what about the scene before that? What did Thomas Howard see in the lantern that made him fall down the stairs? While Robert Eggers has never answered that question directly, I think we can infer some idea from the context of the rest of the movie.
Much like the suitcase in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the audience is meant to decide for themselves what is inside the lantern at the top of the lighthouse. As I said before, the lantern is probably meant to contain some sort of understanding of the universe. However, in the context of The Lighthouse, that universe is most likely the internal universe.
Much of the movie is about the two Thomas’ self-deceit and unwillingness to come to grips with their pasts. As the film progresses and they learn more and more about each other, the lies they’ve told each other about who they are become exposed, and they’re forced to examine their motivations behind those lies. The whole story seems to be about these two men examining their inner selves and slowly coming to grips with the people that they are.
Based on that, I believe that the lantern acts as a sort of mirror. When you look inside of it, you see yourself. However, unlike a normal mirror that allows us to project our self-perceptions and our denials of reality, this mirror shows you who you are really, without any veil of self-delusion. Imagine the cathartic release of coming to grips with all of your flaws and regrets in a single moment. I believe that is what you see on Thomas Howard’s face just before he falls down the stairs.
So, what would you see if you look inside the lantern from The Lighthouse? Well, it would be different for everyone.