The Madness and Mythology of ‘The Lighthouse’ [Spoilers]
It is relatively unsurprising that Robert Eggers, following his critically acclaimed debut feature The Witch, a film distinguished by its period authentic dialogue and utilization of folklore to create an atmosphere of intense pressure, would return to the screen with THE LIGHTHOUSE, a film distinguished by its period authentic dialogue and utilization of folklore.
Set in the late 1800’s, The Lighthouse follows two men (Robert Pattinson's Ephraim Winslow and Willem Dafoe's Thomas Wake) as they tend to a lighthouse somewhere off the coast of Maine. As they descend into an unhinged madness, resulting from their prolonged isolation, there is a steady influx of Greco-Roman mythology ranging from Shakespearean monologues invoking the wrath of Neptune to haunting Promethean imagery. There is one myth, however, that stands out among the rest: the story of Icarus.
As the myth goes, a father, Daedalus, and his son, Icarus, were imprisoned in a maze that Daedalus designed for King Minos. After creating wings from feathers and wax, the father and son escape the maze by flying. However, there were limitations. Icarus is told not to fly to close to the sun so that the wax wouldn’t melt or too low to the ocean so the the wings wouldn’t get wet. Icarus fails to heed his father’s warning and, after flying too close to the sun, falls to his death.
Stories and films like The Lighthouse that feature a master-apprentice dynamic (or father-son, teacher-student, etc.) have often appropriated an Icarus archetype, resulting in a story of Icarus that has come to symbolize the impatient and unchecked ambition of the student.
In The Lighthouse, unchecked ambition is very present in a somewhat odd way. At the start of the film, Ephraim (Pattinson), the new assistant, tells Thomas (Dafoe), the old hand (and Ephraim’s boss) that he‘s only looking for a job that pays. He’s not passionate about the sea (at least, not in the way that Thomas is), and is only there because he heard there was good money in lighthouse keeping.
He asks Thomas to let him see the light but Thomas refuses, at first claiming it’s against regulation but by the end of the film admitting, in a state of mania, that he claims the light as his own. As time goes by, and the desolate rock on which they live becomes even more desolate and even more cramped (quite like Daedalus’ maze), Ephraim searches for a respite from their hellish conditions. He glimpses Thomas bathing in the light in hypnotic madness. He is kept sane by the light; kept alive by the light; kept fed by the light.
As Ephraim falls into a state of fervent chaos, he becomes fixated on seeing the light, and yet, he is still denied by Thomas. Two things become apparent here: the first is that Ephraim’s ambition is not an inherent characteristic, but rather the product of his bleak environment and nightmarish coworker; secondly, unlike Icarus, Ephraim’s ambition comes from the need for freedom rather than the overwhelming effect of it. In Icarus we see a young man who, overcome with the sensation of joyous liberty, pushes the boundaries of his freedom in an impulsive moment of ambition.
On the contrary, Ephraim’s ambition is gradual; it is a steady increase as he moves closer to the light. But he does it because he thinks he needs it. The light is the freedom and respite that the ever demanding Thomas has deprived him of. It’s not until he finally manages to see the light (in a moment of euphoric shock) that his fall mirrors Icarus’. His ascension, his moment of freedom, his respite, is ruined by his plummet.
THE LIGHTHOUSE isn’t a retelling of Icarus per se, but rather a retooling; a commentary on madness, escalation, and humanity. It is a narrative of a fall from grace, a cleansing of the impure and impatient. Regardless of whether or not they’re mirror images of each other, the presence of Icarus is felt in the film and it’s definitely a better and more insane film for it.