(Image courtesy of The Lighthouse / A24)
The Webb Schools

Review: The contemporary relevance of Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’

Perspectives on identity, race, and culture are changing. There is a contemporary question of identity that is pressed onto each individual creating confusion and fear because of its unknown effects.

Director Robert Eggers plays off of this question of identity in his film “The Lighthouse,” by pushing human morality to its limits. Culturally this lack of understanding in identity is scary because it’s unknown.

The two protagonists, Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wade are two lighthouse keepers who are stationed on an extremely remote island. Ephraim takes the job to escape his past murder of a coworker, and motives or causes of the murder are left open-ended. Eggers aims to overwhelm his viewers and address an existential fear of lack of free will.

Ephraim’s experience shows that this lack of control is terrifying rather than convenient. Ambiguity in the film causes a terrifying lack of understanding of the characters and plot, a perplexion that commonly relates to a shifting contemporary society. 

The two characters, Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wade, are beyond the control of any legal or socially constructed rules they abide by. Placed in this freeing situation, their actions are dictated by their personal moral code and a touch of insanity that comes with freedom, so in Ephraim’s violence, Eggers asserts that violence and desire are deeply connected in humans.

Ephraim demonstrates this inability to decipher between desire and violence during the climax of the movie as he is choking Wade. With his hands on his throat, the attractive mermaid appears before his eyes, displaying his sexual desire versus anger towards Thomas.

Violence is a means in which Ephraim is able to release his strong desires, yet the audience does not have any comprehension as to why this light is so attractive, so therefore the idea of desires becoming violent for an apparent reason his scary.

As Ephraim achieves his desire of the light, his reaction is powerful, violent, ecstatic, and orgasmic, so it represents the fulfillment of a culmination of his desires that is altogether horrifying because the viewer does not understand why.

Eggers creates an effect of fear on the viewer that because his desires are strong, his violence is warranted, normalizing this violence. Eggers implies there is something divine and natural to the connection between violence and irrational and unknown desires which is altogether realistic and scary.

He makes a clear homage to Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark in this scene where Ephraim looks at the light and experiences this violent mix of horror and delight. In the film as the Nazis look at the Ark of the Covenant, their faces are burnt off while looking at this sacred light. He presents this Lovecraftian idea of some archaic and supernatural knowledge that drives people insanely passionate in their desire for it and reaction to it.

In both scenes, this idea is clearly shown by the similarities of looking into a light and facial expressions of horror.

In Spielberg’s film, the Nazis look to find justification to prove their argument for Aryan superiority and similarly, Ephraim looks for some vindicating answer to his life. This desire for a definitive answer in society is common, as contemporary society constantly changes, so do perspectives on identity, culture, and race, ultimately driving people to question their place in respect to a morphing society. Eggers uses his Lovecraftian horror to explain this rising fear in being left behind because this light, to the Nazis and to Ephraim, is all-encompassing.

In Spielberg’s film, the Nazis are antagonists and the heroes are the ones who don’t seek or attempt to prevent others from seeking this definitive answer, yet in Eggers’s movie, the two films are contradictory in that it is difficult to argue that Thomas Wade or Ephraim is in the right. Eggers makes it a point to argue the imperfection of humanity through his lack of acknowledgment of a clear protagonist or an antagonist, the audience is left confused, therefore not defining right versus wrong.

The idea of the human perspective being flawed works to confuse the viewer more as this quote not only describes the characters within the film but also forces the audience to question themselves. The movie’s perception is often warped, through the use of delusions and alcohol, forcing the viewer to question what is real. This ambiguity leads to the in-person experience of the film, in which the viewers are forced to attempt to find solidity within the movie, an experience that is parallel to that of Ephraim’s.

Eggers uses the unknown, ambiguity on steroids, to create this feeling of confusion in the viewer. Humans have an innate need to understand the world around them, and when this understanding is pulled away, it triggers a fear response in which they don’t understand what to do with themselves.

The contemporary world is horrifying because its changing and this feeling against the unknown is something Eggers forces the viewer to feel. The confusion exists in the economy, politics, and societal ideals, therefore there is so much unknown and therefore so much fear and this feeling of ambiguity that he presents.