In some ways, The Lighthouse feels like the purest distillation of Robert Eggers’ obsession – the primal, preverbal ways that men relate to each other. This is a film of grunts, heaves and collisions, of both ecstasy and rage, alternately sublime and abject, that perhaps constitutes modern cinema’s most vivid instance of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called the paranoid gothic – a nineteenth-century trope in which two men were placed in a sickly, uneasy and claustrophobic proximity that required them to traverse homosexuality and achieve complete heterosexuality. Certainly, the screenplay could be set in the nineteenth-century, since it unfolds entirely on a barren lighthouse island, and involves just two characters – Thomas Wake, the keeper of the light, played by Willem Dafoe, and Ephraim Winslow, his new assistant, played by Robert Pattinson. Ephraim arrives in the opening scene, which is mythographic in scope, setting the scene for the film to come – ship arriving and receding into primeval mist, shot in expressionist black-and-white in a 1:19:1 frame ratio, accompanied by heaving and lurching sounds, and suffused with the grim fatalism of 1930s poetic realism.
Right away, both men are galvanised by the phallocentric spectacle of the lighthouse, which apparently generated a match cut with Ephraim’s own phallus in the original version of the film. Thomas insists that the light has an occult power of “enchantment” that only he can harness, and instructs Ephraim to stay below and tend to the building. Thomas also claims to be wedded to the light, and actually pleasures himself to the light, as Ephraim discovers when he follows him up to the tip of the lighthouse one night. Peering up through the scaffolding, he glimpses Thomas performing an occult sexual ritual that ends with semen or slime – it’s not clear which – dripping through the grates and onto his face. This is our first indication that tending to the light is synonymous with the great labour of paranoid gothic fiction – regulating the homosocial spaces between men in order to maintain a fiction of total heterosexuality.
That phallic labour initially falls to Thomas, who insists that it is a one-man job, as if he (and the film) can only tolerate the spectacle of one phallus at a time, or only attach the male body to one phallus at a time. While the homoeroticism remains, Thomas deflects it into the physical labour of tending to the light, which Eggers matches in the physical labour of carving light from shadow, making for a remarkably sculptural and physical palette. Among other things, The Lighthouse is a tribute to the mechanics behind sound and light projection, which Eggers reimagines as the most extreme form of physical labour, much as Ephraim has exhausted every other kind of work before arriving at the island. Eggers is clearly attached to the muscularity of French poetic realism, fascinated by the fusion of masculine angst with black-and-white textures that would eventually culminate with the optics and affects of noir.
Yet for all this indebtedness to poetic realism and noir, The Lighthouse exists in a more diffuse time and place that transforms it into a tribute to the phallic potency of cinema itself, as a dying medium. The tighter frame ratio makes it difficult to watch in an ambient or distracted way, let alone on a small screen. Instead, you have to commit yourself to the image, partake of Thomas and Ephraim’s struggles, which increasingly play as the tousle between director and producer, as Thomas tends to the light, and Ephraim keeps the material substrate going downstairs. Through the heroic labour of cinema, Eggers thus crafts a tribute to the spaces between men at work, the proprioceptive awareness of other male bodies that comes with collective physical toil. It’s not hard to see how this evolved into the CrossFit aesthetic of The Northman, especially when Eggers compounds it with the primal masculinity unleashed by alcohol. Poised at that nexus between work, alcohol and masculinity, Thomas and Ephraim start to lose control of language, repeating words incoherently, as if both acknowledging and repressing everything about their rapport that must stay unspoken: “What? What? What?”
In the process, The Lighthouse situates itself at the connective tissue between men – at all the places men fold, to use a phrase from Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar. It’s the same homoeroticism you see in Herman Melville, who feels like a constant touchstone here – a proximity so carnal and primal that, when these men are in it, women are only conceivable as a different species. We see two women in the film, one for each man – the mermaid who washes up on shore, and the more amorphous creature who lives at the top of the lighthouse, and who represents the endpoint of Thomas’ quest for seamless heterosexuality. Both women-creatures confound the difference between animal, vegetable and mineral, especially below the waist, where they dissolve into an abject fusion of tail and tentacles that sees Thomas and Ephraim retreat to the phallic lighthouse for support. Women are too alien to be sexual objects here, but homosexuality is also prohibited, meaning that all pleasure is autoerotic, and always on the verge of becoming homoerotic. The result is a bizarre folie a deux, as Thomas and Ephraim spiral into escalating trances that are both singular and shared.
That, in turn, liquefies the connective tissue between them, which is framed more in terms of ejaculate and effluvia as the film proceeds. In one scene, Ephraim urinates in a bedpan as it floats through the flooded kitchen he stands in, continually missing the mark before falling to his knees and vomiting into the flow. Later, when he tries to put this experience into words, he can only direct a stream of invective at Thomas, but even the sheer paratactic hysteria of this catalogue of snores, burps, farts, semen, urine and rotting foreskin ends up eroticising it, and keeping the homosocial continuum alive. In response, Ephraim tells him that “you have a way with words,” before stepping up with faeces all over his pants. Just as the men fled from the women-mermaid to the lighthouse, so they flee from this all-encompassing liquidity to machinery more generally. But even drinking honey and petrol, beating their chests, and whooping maniacally, isn’t enough to overcome the queasy tissue that draws them ever close.
As this connective tissue intensifies, it blooms into more vertiginous oscillations between violence and domesticity. Thomas invokes Neptune to kill Ephraim, and engorge his organs, in the most baroque monologue in the film, but only because Ephraim says he doesn’t care for his cooking. All that lurid speechifying ends with bathos – “Alright, I like your cooking” – even as this frees up food to act as a sexual surrogate later on, when Thomas claims that “If I had a steak, I would fuck it.” The more violent the connective tissue becomes, the more romantic, culminating with the two men slow dancing, looking into each other’s eyes, pulling back and boxing, before Eggers cuts to them lying together, Thomas on Ephraim’s chest. Thomas’ attempt to escape Ephraim is the most sensuous moment in the film, as he reaches his hands deep into his sleeping body in order to gingerly coerce away the lighthouse’s keys.
The Lighthouse is thus a film about the way that men have to self-police their heterosexuality, and police other men’s heterosexuality, begging the question of how much has really changed since the paranoid gothic’s heyday. Thomas and Ephraim have to learn to mediate each others’ masculinity without being attracted to it, which means that they can only acknowledge one phallus at a time. These tensions eventually converge on Ephraim’s efforts to gain access to the lighthouse, which Thomas parries by effeminising him, preferring to see him as a surrogate woman than as a second phallus. As Ephraim begs to see the light, Thomas alternates between dismissing him as a “bitch that wants to be coveted for nothing but being born,” and imploring him as a “handsome lad, with eyes as bright as a lady.” But this works against Thomas, who morphs into a younger man, then a woman, and then a mermaid, allowing Ephraim to regain the upper hand, by telling Thomas to bark and roll over, putting him on a leash, and walking him outside, as their fisherman’s gear turns into full fetish gear.
In other words, the moment that both men try to cordon off heterosexuality, they instead unleash the full fury of the homoerotic tension between them. Thomas tries to be the man, the phallus, but turns into a woman, while Ephraim’s attempt turns into a queer fetish tableau. Ephraim can only respond with one of the most tried-and-tested gothic tropes, burying Thomas alive outside the lighthouse, in an attempt to disavow his homoerotic double. Yet even this brims with eroticism, as, in one last parry, Thomas asks him “you wish to see what’s in the lantern?” before his mouth is filled with dirt. Ephraim may be the only phallus on the island now, and may have total access to the light, but Thomas has tainted it with this final pronunciation, insisting on a homoerotic excess that can never be completely dissolved.
Sure enough, when Thomas ascends the staircase to the light, in the final scene, he is unable to achieve the film’s fantasy of total heterosexuality, or even become the gatekeeper for the next ingénue to arrive on the island. For the light partly consumes him, forcing him to gaze into its brightness, and then incline his head towards the flames, as his eyes roll back into his skull, and he dissociates into laughter-screaming, pleasure-pain. The film itself feels on the verge of self-destruction too, as the noirish shadows render the light almost unbearably bright by comparison, and the lurching soundscape disperses into grating static. Total heterosexuality is a fantasy, a horizon, a sublime limit that can never be reached, and so Ephraim stumbles back down the spiral staircase, devolving its golden mean of harmonious heterosexuality into the film’s final set piece – his prone body devoured by seagulls, tribute to a Promethean labour of homosocial regulation that Eggers can’t quite believe is possible.