My Interpretation of "The Lighthouse"
The year 2019 was an exceptional year for films, possibly one of the best years in films for some time. But the one I want to talk about for now is one that has a lot of great buzz, that movie being The Lighthouse. While I honestly didn’t enjoy it the first time I saw it, I’ve grown fascinated by it upon subsequent rewatches and want to discuss what my personal interpretations of it are, as its ambiguity leaves plenty of options open for different takes. With that said, there are heavy spoilers ahead, so please read at your own discretion.
The first time I saw the film, I had expected a more traditional horror film, which initially disappointed me in all honesty. But as I said earlier, upon second viewing, I found myself much more enthralled in the movie’s endless possibilities. It's also important to remember that the film is inspired by a very real story of the Smalls Lighthouse incident. With its inspiration from old folklore and what I believe to be Lovecraftian influences, the film could be just simply two men going mad as they’re trapped on this island together, but I believe it could also be a more supernatural story.
The movie is told from the viewpoint of Robert Pattinson's younger Thomas, or Ephraim Winslow as he is known for a portion of the movie (which I’ll revisit later), who seems to be an unreliable narrator. We never know how much of what we see is true or not. But William Dafoe's older Thomas doesn’t seem much more reliable himself. All we learn about him is that he’s possibly an old sailor who’s in charge of maintaining the lighthouse, yet he changes stories so often as our main characters get to know each other that it’s hard to trust anything he says. Yet just because the old Thomas seems to be lying, that doesn’t make him worse than the young Thomas, as we slowly learn about his sordid past and even witness the anger he has not too far under the surface.
One possible explanation in my mind is that the titular lighthouse could possibly be a safe haven for the souls of sailors who died at sea, and William Dafoe’s character was picked to be the caretaker of the light. This could explain the many seagulls we see on the island that the old Thomas claims carry the souls of dead sailors, and why he’s so against Robert Pattinson's younger Thomas even seeing the light. Which could explain how the island seems to be in its own world, set apart from our own. And like most Lovecraftian fiction, the object of the young Thomas’ fascination becomes his undoing, as the lighthouse never chose him to be its keeper and eventually kills him when he finally gets to see it. While this may seem rather unlikely, it’s a fun possibility to an otherwise vague story.
The Slow March of Madness
The most likely possibility is that the younger Thomas is simply just a man living with extreme guilt, who’s pushed to the edge of insanity through the isolation of the island, and the constant drinking and the never-ending torment the older Thomas puts him through on a daily basis. From partially painting the lighthouse for no real reason, to being forced to mop the floor over and over, dragging an extremely heavy barrel of kerosene to the top of the lighthouse because old Thomas withheld the smaller hand drum from him, and eventually finding out that old Thomas never planned to pay him, the constant abuse would wear anyone’s patience thin. There’s no way to tell the passage of time, as young Thomas doesn’t seem to keep track, and old Thomas seems to enjoy keeping young Thomas from knowing exactly how long they’ve spent on the island, only driving him further into madness. When the leads aren’t working, they spend much of their time drinking and bonding, as this is the only time they actually get along. These constant drinking sessions lead to young Thomas revealing that the moniker he originally went by, Ephraim Winslow, isn’t actually his name, but just a name he took from a coworker he watched die or possibly killed at his old job as a logger. He took the lighthouse job as a way to make some money and get a new start in life.
We never get a straight answer as to if young Thomas killed the man whose identity he stole, but we see through his violent tendencies that it’s very possible he may have. The first clue is when we see young Thomas go into the sea to follow a body surrounded by floating logs, showing us that whether or not he did it clearly weighs on his conscience, to the point that it haunts him in his dreams. We also see young Thomas murder a seagull rather aggressively, just because it keeps bothering him throughout his days of working, which is a clear indication that he’s easily capable of serious brutality if he gives in to his anger. Another major contribution to the anger brewing in young Thomas could be his sexual frustration from being isolated on an island with another man, and only a small mermaid statue he becomes infatuated with that eventually also finds its way into his dreams. This perfect storm of anger, guilt, abuse, alcoholism, and the pure isolation of the island seemingly drives young Thomas into an inescapable pit of despair that eventually breaks his sanity.
Whether the story is a Lovecraftian-inspired tale of horror, or just a tragic tale of isolationism, guilt, and alcoholism, driving our two leads to the point of no return, there’s no denying how striking the film can manage to be. Between the tension and the horror, the movie manages to be a compelling buddy comedy at times between two men who wouldn’t otherwise bother to speak to each other if they weren’t stuck on an island together with nothing in common except a love of alcohol. The story being so vague is exactly what makes it so compelling to watch, as viewers can project their own takes of the story onto it. I'd like to get more in depth, but I'd rather invite anyone reading this to think about what their take of the film is instead of going into every detail of the story here.