The Lighthouse: A Tale of Madness

Directed by Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse is about two men placed on a remote island, far from any civilization, to man and tend to a lighthouse during the 1890’s. As time goes on, both Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and his supervisor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe)  begin having strange and mysterious visions whilst trying to maintain their sanity. 

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures

“How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two days? Where are we?” – Thomas Wake

As new movies go, The Lighthouse has been one of the most impressive films in recent times. Currently a new movie on Netflix if you are in the U.K, so don’t miss out while it’s on there! The story is based upon a few ideas, one of them being based upon Allan Edgar Poe’s final and unfinished poem, named unofficially as ‘The Light-House’. Director Robert Eggers was also inspired by a true story of two Welsh lighthouse keepers and their tragic time upon an isolated rock. The tale goes that two men who did not like each other were placed upon one of the most isolated and desolate lighthouses, The Smalls Lighthouse. Located in Pembrokeshire, Wales, this is where the “The Smalls Lighthouse Incident” begins. 

Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith took up their posts in 1801 at Smalls Lighthouse, where a terrible storm stopped them from accessing any new supplies and as a result of this, they became dangerously low, causing Thomas Griffith to become ill. Eventually, Griffith died from his illness and lack of resources and Howell was forced to build a make-shift coffin for his dead body or be forced to stare at Griffith’s corpse. Why didn’t Howell just throw his body over the rails into the sea? Interestingly enough, this is apparently because it was so well known how much Griffith and Howell hated each other that if Howell disposed of Griffith’s body, he would then be suspected of murder.

It is thought that Howell was alone with Griffith’s body for around a month. After a few weeks, a huge storm caused chaos, insanity, and destruction to ensue as the wind was so strong it managed to break Griffith’s coffin, leaving his arm hanging out in the wind… waving. After weeks of staring at his former colleagues dead body moving in the wind, as if calling and crying for help, Howell eventually became a shell of the man he used to be, completely broken and stripped of any sanity he had left. After a few weeks once the storm had cleared, a boat was eventually able to come to Smalls Lighthouse and Howell could finally return home and leave the desolate rock. Tragedy did not stop when Howell finally left the lighthouse as reports declare he was never the same again so much so his family and friends could not even recognise or communicate with him. A truly terrifying and mysterious folk tale. 

So, how did Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe live up to this immense tale of isolation, instability, and insanity? Pattinson and Dafoe marvelously create a maddening and uncomfortable environment along with the masterful directorial ability of Egger. Together they created a suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere, a breeding ground for insanity. The film begins by introducing both characters arriving at their post, an unforgiving rock of land they must now call home. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is the young rookie of the two, learning the ropes of being a lighthouse keeper. He arrives at the rock naive and still with his morals intact, clearly abiding to the rules, particularly to not drink on the job. Quickly we see his character break down and begin to dismiss his own morals through pressure from his colleague Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Winslow’s first drink of alcohol marks his breaking point and descent into madness. Ephraim hates his job, only working the lighthouse because he believes the pay to be sufficient enough so that he can eventually retire somewhere quiet. He hallucinates visions of a mermaid, slipping into a liminal state, neither in reality nor apart from it. He is haunted by seagulls, driving him insane. But most crucially he is bothered by Thomas Wake day after day. 

Thomas Wake is presented as a fairly different character to Winslow, he takes his job title seriously, making it his duty to be abusive to those below him. He finds enjoyment in his power to dictate others and this is ultimately what leads to the divide and hatred between himself and Winslow. Most noticeable though is how superstitious Wake is, with some of his superstitions presenting to be true as the film progresses. 

“Bad luck to kill a sea bird.” – Thomas Wake 

Wake worships the light, making it known that “the light is mine”. Certain scenes portray Wake to treat the light as if it is a God. As such, we become aware of a disturbing and dark side associated with Wake that we had not seen before. His evilness is cemented to the audience when he purposefully gets completely blind drunk so that Ephraim misses the boat to leave. Now they are both stuck together for a long, long, long while. The audience can only imagine the hell and pure insanity that is left to unfold within the movie.  

“Doldrums. Doldrums. Eviler than the Devil. Boredom makes men to villains” – Thomas Wake

We later find out that Ephraim Winslow’s last name is really Howard and that he stole someone’s identity. We are led to believe that there is a possibility that he may have killed this man, however it is never confirmed. I personally believe he did, considering certain scenes where we see the extent of his rage… like during the standoff between him and the bird. After many days and nights of a deeper descent into madness, eventually hell breaks loose when Winslow discovers Wake has been keeping tabs on his insubordination that could possibly lead to him losing his job. In a fit of previously foreshadowed rage, Winslow attacks him. Things begin to get confusing here, with Wake transforming into Winslow’s hallucination of the mermaid and then into a sort of half-man half-octopus creature. After doing some research, this is a possible reference to Proteus, who in Greek mythology is the prophetic old man of the sea and shepherd of the sea flocks. This is likely just Winslow’s hallucinations however. Eventually Winslow manages to kill Wake, leaving a rather horrifying image of Winslow burying Wake alive. 

In Ephraim Winslow’s final mission, he finally goes to see the light. He becomes almost possessed by evil, along with the power of the light, and of course his insanity in an uncomfortable scene filled with terrifyingly unbearable noise. Winslow’s acts do not go unpunished as he slips and falls down the lighthouse stairs, all the way to the bottom, until the scene shifts to a final image of Winslow laying completely naked on the cold rocks, with birds picking at his bare body. 

Again, relating back to Greek mythology, this could be a reference to Prometheus being punished by Zeus. The story tells that Zeus punished Prometheus for stealing fire for man and for tricking Zeus into accepting the bones and fat of a sacrifice instead of the meat and hide. As a punishment, Zeus bound Prometheus in chains and sent an eagle to eat Prometheus’ immortal liver every day, which then grew back every night. Zeus condemned Prometheus to a life of constant suffering and torment. Relating back to The Lighthouse, it is as if the light condemned Winslow to a life of suffering and torment by mysteriously causing him to slip down the entire lighthouse and then have seagulls eat his flesh. 

There are many details to this fantastic movie, showing Egger’s immense talent as a director. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson’s powerhouse performances made this film an extremely well crafted piece of art. The black and white, film-noir visuals give it a timeless feel and it seems that The Lighthouse will go down as one of the most impressive creations in film history. The Lighthouse is a horrifying spectacle to behold, a truly sublime piece of work. 

You think yer so damned high and mighty cause yer a goddamned lighthouse keeper? Well, you ain’t a captain of no ship and you never was, you ain’t no general, no copper, you ain’t the president, and you ain’t my father — and I’m sick of you actin’ like you is! I’m sick of your laugh, your snoring, and your goddamned farts. Your damned goddamned farts. Goddamn yer farts! You smell like piss, you smell like jism, like rotten dick, like curdled foreskin, like hot onions fucked a farmyard shit-house. And I’m sick of yer smell. I’m sick of it! I’m sick of it, you goddamned drunk. You goddamned, no-account, drunken, son-of-a-bitch-bastard liar! That’s what you are, you’re a goddamned drunken horse-shitting — short — shit liar. A liar!  – Ephraim Winslow

12 replies on “The Lighthouse: A Tale of Madness”

I thought the premise seemed familar, but then I was like “it see4ms to be a new movie, so that’ s not it” but it was the lighthouse experience that was familar… gotta see this now! (<–loves maritime history and lighthouses)

Liked by 1 person

I have seen The Witch. Although I saw it when it came out in 2015 so I cannot comment on how it compares in detail as I do not fully remember it. Nevertheless, what I do remember is The Witch being very good and enjoyable, however I would have to say The Lighthouse is of higher caliber. I think The Witch was my first time seeing Anya Taylor-Joy, who gave a great performance in the film.

Liked by 1 person

Cool 🙂 I liked the Witch too – it was very low-budget, and beautifully minimal. So I can see The Lighthouse as being higher caliber. Taylor-Joy was great. I knew she was gonna be a star when that came out.

Liked by 1 person

This is a great movie, William Dafoe is outstanding. Yes, it’s a bit confusing tho still, this film is technically flawless. One of the best film of 2019. Robert Eggers is an amazing director!!!

Liked by 1 person

Thanks for your response! I’ve heard the same comment from others too regarding it as “too slow”. But you’re right, it’s just not everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless I still think it’s incredible!


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