Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse: Art Horror, Alienated Labor, and Capitalist Routinization

M. Keith Booker

University of Arkansas

Horror films often feature lone individuals stranded in strange, remote locations, threatened both by mysterious, unknown forces and by the reactions of their own minds. On the other hand, The Lighthouse (2019), Robert Eggers’ follow-up to the widely acclaimed The Witch (2015), suggests that the only thing that make such a situation more terrifying might be to be in that situation with someone else, who might be a source, less of companionship and support, than of additional threat—or at least unpleasantness. Moreover, The Lighthouse is a horror film in which the principal danger might not come spectacular, supernatural monsters so much as from sheer, mind-numbing tedium, exacerbated by growing tensions between the two central characters. While this film might (or might not) involve such things as mermaids or animals inhabited by the spirits of dead sailors, it is probably ultimately best read as a film about the horror of grueling, repetitive, menial labor performed without any hope of genuine accomplishment, reward, or appreciation.

The Lighthouse tells the story of two men tasked with keeping a lighthouse on an island off the shore of 1890s New England—and it tells that story with impressive, self-conscious artistry. The senior of the two, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), is apparently a former sailor who has now been tending this lighthouse for quite some time. His assistant, who identifies himself early on as “Ephraim Winslow” (Robert Pattinson), has just arrived on the island for a four-week stint until his relief is supposed to arrive, along with fresh provisions. The first half of the film details the tensions that sometimes arise between the two men in the ordinary course of things, while “Winslow,” in particular, struggles to adjust to the rigors of his demanding new job. The second half of the film then follows the two men as things unravel after a powerful storm cuts them off from the expected relief, while most of their food supply is destroyed by the damp. Meanwhile, this relatively simple narrative is conveyed with an impressive, postmodern artistry that not only reinforces the effectiveness of the story but becomes virtually a separate story in itself, especially in the way it contrasts with the unrewarding, back-breaking labor performed by “Winslow” in the film.

The Art and Artifice of The Lighthouse

Throughout most of the film, there are relatively few actual events that specifically identify The Lighthouse as a horror film. Then again, this is a film that is not about events so much as the lack of events. “Winslow’s” work, in particular, is boring and repetitive, the stress of it coming not merely from the physical demands of the labor but also from the lack of mental demands. The growing sense of dread that permeates the film, then, is built primarily through the technical artistry of the film itself. And this artistry involves virtually every resource of film as a medium. Much has been made, for example, of the performances of the two lead actors, which are indeed impressive bravura efforts, though perhaps not enough has been made of the fact that the performances are impressive in such different ways. Dafoe’s performance is outlandish and over-the-top, while Pattinson’s (which has been compared by multiple reviewers with Daniel Day-Lewis’s near-legendary Oscar-winning turn in 2007’s There Will Be Blood) is much more naturalistic. As a result, not only do these performances contribute respectively to the success of the film on their own, but the contrast between the performances helps to convey the sense that the two characters played by these actors are very different and somewhat incompatible.

In addition, the sound and visuals of The Lighthouse are both notable artistic achievements. The film’s score (by Mark Korven, who also did the score for The Witch) is filled with ominous, eerie-sounding music that does a great deal to build the atmosphere of strangeness and dread. What has been most noted by critics, though, is the film’s black-and-white cinematography, which won an Oscar-nomination for cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who also shot The Witch. The film’s black-and-white visual imagery very effectively conveys the dreary and monotonous nature of life on the island—though “black-and-white” is not quite accurate, given that there is very little true black and very little true white in this film. There are mostly just shades of gray, which helps to create an atmosphere of grim, colorless sameness. At the same time, any twenty-first-century film in black and white immediately takes on an antique air for contemporary viewers, so accustomed to color that the lack of color will stand out because it is so unusual. But Eggers and Blaschke were not satisfied with this easily-achieved effect, striving for a much more authentic old-fashioned look through the use of vintage lenses, a black-and-white film stock that was first introduced in the 1950s, and special filters[1]. In addition, the antique look of the film is further reinforced by the unusual 1.19:1 aspect ratio, a nearly square form common in early sound films that again automatically looks old-fashioned to contemporary viewers, mostly accustomed to seeing films in an aspect ratio of 16:9, or even wider. Finally, many specific shots in the film seem to have been intentionally composed to look as if they might have come from an older film, perhaps from the 1930s or 1940s (the earliest decades of modern (sound) film, further enhancing the old-fashioned aura projected by the film. The camera movement sometimes also enhances this effect, as in a shot, late in the film, of an old-fashioned barometer and clock, lit by a gas lantern. These devices look inherently old-fashioned, but this shot is made more so by the way the camera focuses first on a closeup of the barometer, then pulls back for the longer shot, creating a slightly shaky movement of a kind not normally seen in the films of today. The movement continues until it is clear that we are now looking through a window at the devices, as if the camera has moved through the window in a moment that is reminiscent of the fancy camera movements in something like Citizen Kane. The focus then shifts onto a raging storm, with crashing waves that are beginning to flood the island, including one shot of waters pouring through the window of the room where the two men are hiding under a table, cackling. This last shot, clearly achieved with practical special effects, also looks very much like something from a 1940s film. Finally, there are a number of shots of the ponderous, steampunk-like machinery of the lighthouse that help to enhance the pre-modern feel of the film, such technological devices being among the easiest ways to establish the time period of a film’s action, given how dramatically technology can change over time.

A decidedly old-fashioned shot of a barometer and clock, lit by a gas lantern.

Thus, while it would obviously not have been practical to try literally to replicate the look of a film from the 1890s, The Lighthouse employs a number of strategies to help create a sense of being in that distant decade, one in which the film industry itself was born. It was also the beginning of the explosive and revolutionary social and technological changes that transformed American society in the following decades due especially to the rise of consumer capitalism. Given that we still live in a world largely conditioned by the aftermath of the revolutionary changes of the first decades of the twentieth century, the 1890s was the last historical decade in America that could be said to occur in a pre-modern world distinctively and fundamentally different from our own, a fact that also contributes to the sense of strangeness in the world of the film.

In addition, this aspect ratio is likely to be seen by contemporary viewers as laterally compressed, creating a sort of claustrophobic feel that contributes to the sense of claustrophobia that informs the lives of the two men, living in such close quarters throughout the film. The look of the film, then, is not only old-fashioned, but also oppressive in some ways. Still, in certain moments, the black-and-white cinematography creates moments of ethereal beauty that combine with the soundtrack to create an air of strangeness that operates in tension with the tedium of the film’s events. This contrast can be very unsettling, but in an almost imperceptible way, causing viewers to feel uneasy without really being conscious of why they feel uneasy. The first moment in the film in which this effect becomes obvious is the one in which “Winslow,” just over fifteen minutes into the film, stirs powdered chalk-like powder into the cistern that supplies water to the lighthouse[2]. This cistern has become contaminated (one of the many details that create sense that something awful might be happening on the island), and “Winslow” has been tasked with the job of decontaminating it, though he is never able to succeed in doing so.

After dumping the powder into the water in the cistern, “Winslow” stirs it, creating a strange pattern in the water that is accompanied by particularly ominous-sounding music. It’s as if the pattern is attempting to form itself into a spiral, but simply can’t break through the chaos. This image clearly can be taken as a reflection of life on the island, a strange chaotic mixture of the tedious and the tumultuous, the mundane and the mythic, the abject and the absurd.

The pattern in the cistern.

There are other such striking images in the film as well, including one late in the film that seemingly appears as a projection of “Winslow’s” deteriorating mental state more than of something that is meant to be taken as physical reality. In particular, this image appears as heightening tensions between the two men are turning violent and even murderous and as “Winslow” seems to be sinking into complete insanity. Thus, the image is not at all inappropriate at this point in the film and fits in very well with the other images in this part of the film. However, the image is so self-consciously composed that it still calls attention to itself. In fact, this image has been specifically designed to mimic the 1904 painting “Hypnosis,” by Sacha Schneider. For one thing, this reference to a painting that is nearly contemporaneous with the events of the film again helps to create a sense of that time. For another, this technique of referencing paintings (used by Eggers in The Witch with regard to paintings by Goya) also helps to remind viewers of the status of The Lighthouse as a carefully and self-consciously constructed work of art. Thus, Eddie Falvey’s characterization of the film as an example of “art-horror,” in the mode of The Shining, seems quite appropriate.

Confrontation between the two men in The Lighthouse.

Sascha Schneider’s “The Hypnosis” (1904)

The Lighthouse is, in fact, an extremely allusive film that also refers to artworks beyond the visual arts. It is, for example, a very literary film that draws extensively on works on nineteenth-century literature. The genesis of the screenplay (by Eggers and his brother Max) was a story by Edgar Allan Poe, though it ultimately drifted away from its original source. As the script developed, works by Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville also provided material, while the stories of Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1901) were particularly important in developing the distinctive dialects in which the two men, especially Wake, speak[3]. Both Melville and Jewett are, in fact, cited in the film’s end credits. Among other things, this reinscription of “The Hypnosis” suggests “Winslow’s sense that Wake has been manipulating him and playing with his mind. What follows then is a chaotic sequence in which Wake appears to be chasing “Winslow” about the island with an axe, at one point using the axe to destroy the wooden lifeboat that is their only way off the island. The driving rain in this sequence is so heavy that it is difficult to see just what is going on, further enhancing the sense of confusion that comes from the fact that, by this point our ability to distinguish between the reality of the film’s world and “Winslow’s” fantasy visions has pretty much collapsed. The chase ends when “Winslow” confronts Wake and accuses him of using a scrimshaw mermaid as a charm to befuddle his mind. Worse, he accuses him of having murdered his previous second, having apparently earlier reeled in a lobster pot containing the head of his predecessor. For his part, Wake responds by suggesting that “Winslow” is mad and that it was, in fact, “Winslow” who was chasing Wake, trying to kill him with an axe. He then muddies the interpretive waters still more by suggesting that both he and the island are probably figments of “Winslow’s” imagination.

By this time, many elements of the film cause us to take Wake’s claim here seriously. In particular, we have learned by this time that “Ephraim Winslow” is apparently not the younger’s man name at all. In a moment of drunken camaraderie, he has revealed to Wake that his name is actually “Thomas Howard” and that he has assumed the identity of the real Ephraim Winslow, his foreman in his former job with a logging operation, the real Winslow having been killed in a work accident after Howard chose to take no action to save him. Falvey suggests that this scene, in which Wake’s claim causes us to question what we have just seen, “illustrates directorial trickery, amplifies the plausibility of Howard’s madness and deepens the mystery of the text as a whole by inviting repeat viewings through which to piece it all together” (71). But the interpretive uncertainty introduced by this scene is more than a mere artistic flourish. It also contributes to the film’s ongoing interrogation of fundamental questions concerning the authenticity of identity.

The Lighthouse and the Question of Identity

The revelation of Howard’s assumed identity occurs within the context of so much interpretive uncertainty that, for one thing, we cannot be entirely certain that he is telling the truth when he claims to be Howard. When we get two completely different stories coming from the same source, with no corroborating information for either, how do we know which story to believe? It is probably natural to believe the second one, and that version of Howard’s identity seems more likely to be true in this case, but there is no evidence in the film that can establish this view as an incontrovertible fact. Similarly, it doesn’t seem excessively cynical to question Howard’s story about the death of the original Winslow. Given his reports of Winslow’s continual verbal abuse and given that he has made clear his hatred of Winslow, can we be sure that his story about Winslow’s accidental death is not merely a coded version of the real story, in which, perhaps, Howard actively murdered Winslow?

Howard’s uncertain identity and questionable reliability in general are crucial to this film because he is clearly established from the very beginning as the film’s point-of-view character. We are encouraged to view the events of the film in the way that Howard views them, so that he essentially plays the role of narrator in the film. He is, however, a highly unreliable narrator who can be trusted neither to perceive reality accurately nor to convey his perceptions honestly. This technique can be a bit confusing, but it can be quite effective—and seems to be becoming more and more common. Since The Lighthouse, for example, the  events of such films as Joker (2019) and The Father (2021) have been related largely from the points of view of protagonists who do not have a firm grip on reality.

The first hint we get that Howard’s experiences, as shown in the film, might not correspond to physical reality comes very early in the film when we see Howard as he finds a body in the water, begins to wade out to it, then sinks underwater, where he spots a swimming mermaid. Then, an abruopt cut shows him waking in his cot, making clear that the strange scene we have just seen had been a dream. As we move forward through the film, however, such clear markers will not be provided. It gradually becomes obvious that Howard is descending into madness, which makes it clear that what we see on the screen might be, at least in part, the product of his fevered imagination, but in general we must use our own judgment to determine whether what we see is really happening within the world of the film or whether Howard is simply imagining it. As everything is presented to us from the point of view of Howard, we have no independent information that we can use to gauge the information being presented to us by him. We do have the input of Wake (which suggests that Howard is indeed mad and hallucinating), but even Wake’s counter-information is filtered through Howard and might have been imagined by him.

Howard’s unreliability as a narrator means that we can never finally interpret anything we see on the screen with absolute certainty—especially during the film’s final moments, in which Howard seems to his grip on reality altogether, leaving us with a sequence of disjointed and enigmatic scenes of which viewers can make what they will. But The Lighthouse is a film that was extensively researched and meticulously constructed, so it is clear that any ambiguities were intentional. As Eggers noted in an interview, “It’s intended to be ambiguous. It’s intended to raise more questions than to provide any answers. I know that some people don’t find satisfaction with that, and I’m comfortable with it. But that’s what my brother and I were after” (Fletcher). Part of this ambiguity is achieved simply by leaving gaps that need to be filled in by the viewer, but the most important source of ambiguity in the film is the fact that everything we see seems to have been filtered through Howard’s own unreliable consciousness.

Of course, Howard is not the only character in this film who might not be entirely reliable. Wake is such a theatrical character that we have to wonder whether his status as a salty old sea dog driven aground by a bum leg might be at least partly a fabrication on his part. And there is, again, Wake’s suggestion to Howard that “I’m probably a figment of yer imagination.” For his part, Howard himself detects inconsistencies in Wake’s nonstop stories of his time at sea, and finally, as things come to a head near the end of the film, calls him on it, employing an overt allusion to Melville’s Moby-Dick: “I’m tired of your damned-fool yarns and your Captain Ahab horseshit,” he declares. “You sound like a goddamn parody!” Many viewers have probably been thinking very much the same thing by this point, and it is certainly the case that Dafoe’s brilliant portrayal of Wake as a flamboyant, larger-than-life figure makes it seem very much as if Wake is merely playing a character, whether or not that character might have been authored by Howard.

Still, however questionable his stories of his former life as a sailor might be, it does seem clear that Wake (either in reality or in Howard’s imagination) has worked for a long while as a lighthouse keeper and that, in fact, his identity is very much defined by that work. Indeed, the only meaningful relationship in his life seems to be his mystical-sexual connection with the lighthouse light, which, he notes at one point, has been a “finer, truer, quieter wife than any alive-blooded woman.” Given this connection, Wake’s work as the lighthouse keeper might be described as fulfilling, non-alienated labor that stands in sharp contrast to the meaningless, repetitive drudgery of Howard’s work as his assistant. And, of course, there is also the hierarchical, essentially class-based, difference between the two men, with Wake playing the role of manager/supervisor, and Howard playing the role of underling.

The Lighthouse,Alienated Labor, and Capitalist Routinization

The Lighthouse is a film filled with artistic flourishes and mythic resonances. Its world is built around the overtly phallic lighthouse tower and is filled with mermaids, tentacles, ominous birds, and specific mythical allusions, such as the clear reference to the story of Prometheus in the film’s final shot. All of these features call out for allegorical interpretations in a search for significance. I would argue, however, that The Lighthouse is, first and foremost, a film about work. Grueling physical labor of the kind performed by Howard, whom we often see doing things such as shoveling coal or pushing a heavily-loaded wheelbarrow, is seldom seen in American film, where characters are rarely shown performing their actual jobs, unless they have jobs that are considered “interesting and important,” such as doctors or lawyers, or “exciting,” such as detectives, astronauts, and cowboys. Howard, though, is repeatedly shown performing grueling menial tasks under unpleasant conditions, tasks that he himself clearly finds neither interesting nor exciting. And much of it is pointless. Despite staggering across the rugged landscape of the island carrying a heavy bag of chalk with which to decontaminate the cistern, Howard is never able to produce potable water. Soon afterward, he struggles up a rickety ladder carrying a heavy toolbox so he can repair a leaky roof—but the roof never stops leaking throughout the film. In perhaps the most telling episode of all, he drags an extremely bulky and heavy can of oil up the spiral staircase of the lighthouse, nearly working himself to exhaustion on the way. Then he is greeted at the top of the stairs by a clearly amused Wake, who hands him a much smaller oil can that he could have used to transport the needed oil up the stairway, thus saving all that excruciating labor. And, in perhaps the most telling sequence of all, Wake lowers Howard in a rope sling down the outside wall of the lighthouse, so that he can pointlessly scrub the wall in a futile attempt to clean it. Then Howard falls and is nearly seriously injured, leaving us to wonder whether Wake might have dropped him on purpose (and leaving Howard to wonder the same thing).

Wake does seem almost downright sadistic in his treatment of Howard, though we can never be sure whether this treatment is merely Howard’s own paranoia talking. And the same uncertainty pertains to the moment when we see Howard find Wake’s logbook and read entries detailing Howard’s malfeasance and neglect of duty, concluding with the recommendation that Howard be terminated without pay. Do these entries represent an especially clear and very specific example of the exploitation of Howard’s labor by management? Or are they projections of Howard’s expectation of being exploited, after all the grueling tasks he has been assigned by Wake?

Among prominent American films, perhaps the one that comes closest to The Lighthouse in the extent to which it shows its protagonist performing difficult manual labor is There Will Be Blood, in which many scenes feature protagonist Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) performing the difficult, dangerous, and dirty work of extracting riches from the ground. And Plainview, like Howard, ultimately descends into murderous madness, even though Plainview’s work differs dramatically from that of Howard in the sense that he actually accomplishes something with his work. He not only attempts to extract riches from the earth, he actually does extract riches. Perhaps more importantly, he extracts those riches under his own supervision and personally profits from his labor, becoming quite wealthy in the course of the film. Thus, unlike The Lighthouse, There Will Be Blood derives much of its narrative energy from the romance of capital accumulation, always an easier story to sell than the story of ordinary manual labor.At the same time, the pressures of competition and of the ruthless ambition that is required to achieve this level of success leaves him a broken man, ending up in somewhat the same condition as Howard in The Lighthouse. That Plainview himself comes to a bad end can then be taken as an indication of the way in which even the most successful individuals are disposable under capitalism, which proceeds unabated in his historical evolution, independent of the fates of specific individuals.

In some ways, Plainview actually combines the roles played by Wake and Howard in The Lighthouse—with the addition of all that capital accumulation as an added component. The contrast between the work of Wake and that of Howard is, I would argue, the most important contrast between the two men. Like so much in this film, this contrast is presented not just through the narrative but also through specific visuals. Howard is shown dealing mostly with bulky, old-fashioned hand tools in grimy, wet, unpleasant conditions; Wake is shown dealing with the light itself, which is presented as a sort of artwork, as an almost mystical object, operating in sterile, almost ethereal conditions. In fact, as opposed to Howard’s demanding physical labor amid the mud and the muck, Wake is shown in mystical communion with the light, naked and essentially in a state of ecstasy. Howard quickly becomes intrigued by Wake’s work with the light, especially after he attempts to observe Wake at work and seems to detect something vaguely sexual going on—not to mention a strange tentacle slithering across the light chamber. However, Wake jealously keeps the tending of the light to himself, even though it is supposed to be alternated between the two.

The mystery and strangeness that surround Wake’s work as the tender of the light begs for a non-realist reading, and it seems to me quite likely that, while Howard might not have imagined Wake altogether, he very well might be fantasizing the nature of Wake’s connection with the light. For one thing, the clearly sexual resonances of this connection would seem to speak to Howard’s own sexual frustrations, which can also be seen in his immediate fascination with the scrimshaw mermaid, which propels him not only into repeated masturbation but also into repeated visions of an actual mermaid, including one episode of imagined intercourse with the mythical female creature. Indeed, the sexual and the mythical are virtually inseparable in this film, and Howard’s fantasy vision of Wake’s work also involves a mystical/spiritual connection that contains a clearly magical element.

Even in his earlier life as a sailor (assuming he had an earlier life as a sailor), Wake presents his work as having been exciting and rewarding, a life of adventure more than mere tedium. Early in the film (in a rare moment of (seeming) frankness, Wake, having made it clear that he loved his earlier life as a sailor, he tells “Winslow,” “What’s the terrible part of a sailor’s life, ask ye, lad? ‘Tis when the works stops when ye’re twixt wind and water. Doldrums. Doldrums. Eviler than the devil. Boredom makes men to villains.” In Howard’s case, of course, there is no such distinction between the work and the doldrums, as both are excruciatingly boring.

Indeed, Howard has apparently always found his work tedious and unrewarding, having passed through a series of menial jobs that he clearly found unsatisfying. “I done every kind of work can pay a man,” he tells Wake early in the film, “Can’t find a post to take a real shine to, so I keep movin’ along. … Just like any man. Just wanna settle down quiet-like, with some earnings. I read some place that a man could earn 630, or I read $1000 a year if he tends a light far offshore. The further away, the more he earns.” In short, he finds it impossible to imagine having a rewarding job. Instead, he merely dreams of having a job that will allow him to save his earnings toward someday leaving the workforce altogether and moving somewhere “up country,” where he would build his own home, “with no one to tell me ‘what for.’”

Wake isn’t impressed: “Same old boring story, eh?” And it is a boring story, indeed, or at least a story of boredom. Meanwhile, Howard has also apparently had a difficult time with supervisory personnel during his various jobs. Indeed, given that his chief fantasy involves building his own home, it is clear that Howard does not resent physical labor: he merely resents the kind of alienated work in which he is separated from the fruits of his labor, the benefits of which accrue primarily to others and the course of which is directed by others.

This kind of alienated labor is precisely the kind that Marx identified as a key consequence of the capitalist system. Meanwhile, the tedium of Howard’s labor can be associated quite directly with the process of routinization that Max Weber identified as a crucial consequence of the historical evolution of capitalism. For Weber, this evolution has led to the gradual enlistment of all of the resources of the world in the interest of the generation of wealth, thus converting all aspects of life in the world into economic assets. Further, this conversion is the culmination of a long historical process of “elimination of magic from the world which had begun with the Hebrew prophets, and in conjunction with Hellenistic scientific thought, had repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin” (Weber 105). For Weber, the basic worldview of capitalism reduces everything in the world to an instrument of capitalist productivity. I would also add that the rise of consumer capitalism, beginning in the final years of the nineteenth century, further accelerated this process, stripping human experience of anything and everything that can’t be rationalized, routinized, packaged, and marketed. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—originally published in 1904 and 1905, just as the rise of consumer capitalism was shifting into high gear—Weber describes how capitalism (with Protestantism as its accessory and ideological handmaiden) produces a world bereft of magic, in which everything makes sense, everything has a price, and nothing has real value.

The particularly strong confluence of Protestant repression and capitalist modernization that marked the American ideological climate combined with the closing of the frontier in the late nineteenth century to produce a perfect storm of routinization and rationalization that left Americans yearning for a world of more color, variety, and adventure than the one they saw around them. Thus, as William Leach notes in his magisterial study of the rise of consumer capitalism in America, the early years of the twentieth century saw a remarkable surge in pageants, spectacles, parades, circuses and other forms of entertainment that sought to produce visions of exciting and exotic experiences that went beyond the sameness of routinized life under capitalism.

This search for manufactured adventure also showed up in a turn toward the unusual and the exotic in literature and in the new film industry. Meanwhile, Fredric Jameson’s reading in The Political Unconscious of the utopian energies that lie within the genre of romance points toward the relevance of this turn to The Lighthouse. Beginning with Weber and asking why nonrealist genres such as romance would remain popular in a routinized capitalist world stripped of magic, Jameson concludes that such genres remained popular as modern capitalism tightened its grip on American society not despite this routinization, but because of it. Amid the impoverished and routinized environment of consumer capitalism, individuals naturally desire something that can imaginatively escape routinization, making the magical worlds of romance attractive as a sign of other possible ways of living in and viewing the world. “Romance,” Jameson concludes, “now again seems to offer the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms, and of demonic or Utopian transformations of a real now unshakably set in place” (104).

With Jameson’s analysis in mind, we can now see much of Howard’s behavior in The Lighthouse as the result of a striving for some sort of utopian compensation for his routinized, alienated condition through the construction of fantasies of a richer and more rewarding life. For one thing, his assumption of the identity of his former supervisor, Winslow, suggests that he might have imagined the life of Winslow, as managerial personnel, to be richer than his own, as a lowly worker. In the film, he transfers this belief to his new supervisor, Wake, upping the ante by imagining Wake’s life to be absolutely magical, then developing an ultimately murderous hostility to Wake when he turns out to be disappointing as a fantasy role model. Having apparently killed Wake (as he perhaps had earlier killed Winslow), Howard then shifts the focus of his fantasies to the right Promethean fire of the magical light itself, leading to his final demise.

This same sort of interpretation can also be applied to all the other mythical materials that pervade The Lighthouse, whether they derive from Christian theology, Greek mythology, or maritime lore, including such elements as the seemingly haunted one-eyed seagull or the mermaids (both scrimshaw and imaginary). Chief among these is the light itself, which functions not just as the fire of Prometheus, but as the Holy Grail, the forbidden fruit, the key to Enlightenment, or whatever. Within the framework I have just presented, the light is perhaps best viewed simply as the embodiment of the spark of magic removed from human experience by capitalist routinization and alienated labor.

At the same time, a lighthouse light strikingly resembles a projector in a movie theater, and it is difficult not to see the magical light in this film as a commentary on film itself, much in the mode of the factory gears through which Chaplin’s Tramp is fed, like film through the sprockets of a projector, in Modern Times (1936). Chaplin, of course, was commenting on his own fears that integrated sound might remove some of the magic from the movies, making them products more of technology than of art. Read alongside Chaplin, the depiction of the mystical light in The Lighthouse might be taken, in conjunction with the high level of artistic achievement in this film, as a suggestion that the movies still have a mystery and a magic of their own, all the recent talk about the negative impact of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) notwithstanding. Thus, the work of an uncompromising director such as Eggers might be seen as analogous to the way the work of Wake is depicted in this film. On the other hand, Howard’s demise after finally reaching the light might then be taken as an acknowledgement that one should not expect movie “magic” to work genuine miracles; a man whose life and mind have been shattered cannot expect to be healed by a movie.

Howard cannot understand any of these things, of course, especially as he lives at a moment in history when consumer capitalism and the film industry were just beginning to emerge, though the process of capitalist routinization was already well advanced and he at least feels its effects. After all, Weber could already identify that process when he was writing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century. What Howard does know is that something is wrong; that his work is arduous, repetitive, and unfulfilling; that those who are in positions to supervise that work are abusive and unsympathetic. He understands that a life that consists of virtually nothing but this difficult and demanding work is no life at all. The fact that he cannot understand or articulate the specific mechanisms of his frustration explains the generalized and incoherent nature of his fantasies of relief from the tedium of alienated labor, fantasies that have no specific object than to conjure some experience—sexual, mystical, or otherwise—that is different from his day-to-day work. At the same time, these fantasies of escape are so vague and unspecific that they are ultimately unsatisfying, leading Howard—perhaps already traumatized from his experience with Winslow—to spiral downward into madness.

Conclusion

If one relates the considerable ambiguity of The Lighthouse primarily to Howard’s unstable mental state, then this ambiguity turns out to serve the very clear purpose of dramatizing Howard’s lack of understanding of the forces that have turned his life into one of such repetitive and unrewarding labor. And his ultimate downfall reminds us of just how hard those forces are to escape. Those forces remain hard to escape today, and we should remember that The Lighthouse is itself a product of 2019, a time in which we have much more knowledge of and experience with the consumer capitalist system that has now been churning away as the dominate driver of American life for more than a century. In fact, despite its close attention to accurate 1890s period detail, this film (like all films) is a product of the time of its own making. All those period details, along with all the literary and mythical references that seem to cry out for interpretation, make The Lighthouse extremely information rich, even as it consistently defeats any authoritative interpretation of that information. The experience of viewing the film, then, is very much like the experience of living in the world of late capitalism, which is so long on information and so short on understanding of what it all means, even though it seems clear that it must mean something.

There is, however, one aspect of The Lighthouse that does offer a considerable amount of utopian consolation. Though Howard ultimately gets nowhere in his attempts to surmount the twin demons of alienated labor and capitalist routinization, Robert Eggers and his cast and crew have produced through their labors a complex, beautiful, and well-nigh magical work of cinematic art that stands in stark contrast to the fruitless labors of Howard. Granted, films are commodities (and expensive ones at that), but Eggers can certainly not be accused of selling out. The two feature films produced thus far by him were both unusually inexpensive to make, with production budgets of $4 million and $11 million, respectively. Meanwhile, The Witch was a modest commercial success with a $40 million take at the box office, but The Lighthouse was much less of a success, taking in roughly $18 million. Neither, though, was a big box office film by Hollywood standards in the age of the MCU, despite the fact that both earned considerable critical praise. Indeed, Eggers has already established a reputation for privileging artistic integrity over commercial viability, and it is clear that a film as complex and ambiguous as The Lighthouse was never going to be a big commercial success, even if it is something of an aesthetic marvel as well as a profound meditation on some important historical issues. It thus avoids being only a commodity and offers at least some resistance to being consumed in that way.

Works Cited

Falvey, Eddie. “‘Art-horror’ and ‘Hardcore Art-horror’ at the Margins: Experimentation and Extremity in Contemporary Independent Horror.” Horror Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2021, pp. 63–81.

Fletcher, Rosie. “The Lighthouse: The Myths and Archetypes Behind the Movie Explained.” Den of Geek, 1 February 2020, https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/the-lighthouse-the-myths-and-archetypes-behind-the-movie-explained/. Accessed 30 November 2021.

Fuller, Graham. “Divine Inspirations: The Art of The Lighthouse.” Sight & Sound, 28 January 2020, https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/lighthouse-robert-eggers-literary-visual-influences-melville-lovecraft-dads-army. Accessed 26 November 2021.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell University Press, 1981.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Vintage-Random House, 1993.

Thomson, Patricia. “Stormy Isle: The Lighthouse.” American Cinematographer, 13 January 2020, https://ascmag.com/articles/stormy-isle-the-lighthouse. Accessed 27 November 2021.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–1905. Trans. Talcott Parsons. 1930. London: Routledge, 1995.

Zielinski, Paul. “Lighthouse Technology: What’s a Cistern?” St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, 17 February 2016, https://www.staugustinelighthouse.org/2016/02/17/lighthouse-technology-whats-a-cistern/. Accessed 26 November 2021.

Notes

[1] For more on the technical details of the film’s cinematography, see Thomson.

[2] This decontamination treatment might not seem very promising. However, the an 1881 handbook entitled Instructions to Light-Keepers advises that, “water contaminated with chloride of lead from salt spray resting on the leads of light-houses, &c., whence rain water is collected, does not lose its poisonous qualities either by boiling or by exposure to air. To purify this water, and render it perfectly fit for all culinary and domestic purposes, it will only be necessary to put some powdered chalk or whiting into each cistern in which such rain water is collected, and to stir it up well, occasionally, after rain has fallen” (cited in Zielinski). The attention to detail in this film is extensive.

[3] For a more extensive discussion of the various literary and artistic sources of material in The Lighthouse, see Fuller.