In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for The Lighthouse, we talk about themes that help us understand the film.
- Robert Pattinson – Ephraim Winslow/Thomas Howard
- Willem Dafoe – Thomas Wake
- Valeriia Karamän – the Mermaid
- Logan Hawkes – the real Ephraim Winslow
The themes and meaning of The Lighthouse
The Danger of Isolation
Isolation is a fundamental theme in The Lighthouse. The story begins with the arrival of two lighthouse keepers, a young man named Ephraim Winslow and an older man named Thomas Wake, on a desolate island. The two men are assigned to tend to the lighthouse for four weeks, with no other human presence or external communication. This isolation is visually represented through the film’s black-and-white cinematography and claustrophobic 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which encapsulates the characters’ entrapment on the island. Moreover, the film’s sound design, which prominently features the sound of crashing waves, wind, and the constant foghorn, further emphasizes the characters’ detachment from the outside world.
As the days pass, the isolation begins to wear on both characters. Winslow, who initially sought the solitude of the island to escape a troubled past, gradually succumbs to paranoia and hallucinations. He is plagued by nightmares of a one-eyed seagull, the manifestation of his guilt over a previous workplace incident. Wake, on the other hand, is a veteran lighthouse keeper who appears to be hiding a supernatural secret within the lighthouse’s lantern room. He warns Winslow of the dangers of isolation and the curse of the seabirds, which represent the spirits of dead sailors. Winslow’s increasingly disturbing visions, including those of mermaids and tentacled monsters, demonstrate how isolation can lead to the deterioration of one’s mental state.
The Implications of Toxic Masculinity
Another theme that pervades The Lighthouse is masculinity. The film explores various facets of manhood, including vulnerability, strength, and the performance of gender roles. This theme is apparent from the beginning when Winslow and Wake engage in a power struggle over the division of labor. Wake asserts dominance by assigning Winslow to the more physically demanding tasks, such as shoveling coal and maintaining the lighthouse’s exterior, while he reserves the more prestigious duty of tending to the light itself.
Masculinity is further emphasized through the characters’ physicality and mannerisms. Winslow, for instance, is shown chopping wood and performing manual labor, while Wake is often depicted smoking a pipe and regaling Winslow with tales of the sea. This dynamic shifts when the characters begin to drink alcohol heavily, which leads to the gradual breakdown of their carefully constructed masculine facades. Winslow is shown sobbing in Wake’s arms during a particularly emotional scene, while Wake loses his stoicism and becomes more vulnerable as the film progresses.
Moreover, the film explores the theme of toxic masculinity. Winslow’s initial reluctance to show emotion and vulnerability is a key element of this theme. His inability to cope with the guilt of his past actions ultimately leads to his psychological unraveling. Additionally, Wake’s manipulation and domineering behavior contribute to the toxic environment, as he uses his authority to maintain control over Winslow.
The Struggle for Power
The struggle for power is a central theme in The Lighthouse. Throughout the film, the characters vie for dominance, both physically and psychologically. This power struggle is most apparent in the characters’ interactions surrounding the lighthouse’s lantern room. Wake forbids Winslow from entering the room, claiming that only the senior lighthouse keeper can tend to the light. This prohibition only serves to fuel Winslow’s curiosity and intensifies his desire to access the room. The lantern room symbolizes power and control, and the film gradually reveals that Winslow’s obsession with the light stems from his yearning for autonomy and escape from his troubled past.
The struggle for power is also evident in the characters’ shifting relationship dynamics. For instance, Winslow’s attempt to take control by reporting Wake’s negligence to their superiors backfires when Wake reveals that he had intercepted and destroyed the report. As their isolation intensifies, the characters become increasingly hostile and manipulative, resorting to physical violence and psychological warfare in their quest for dominance. This culminates in a chilling scene where Wake forces Winslow to act like a dog and bark for his amusement, a symbolic representation of the power imbalance between the two men.
Additionally, the struggle for power is manifested through the characters’ encounters with the supernatural. The mysterious presence in the lighthouse’s lantern room, which Wake seems to worship, represents a higher power that both men are desperate to access. Winslow’s hallucinations, particularly those involving the one-eyed seagull and mermaid, can be seen as manifestations of his subconscious desire to gain control over his environment and escape his past. In the end, Winslow’s pursuit of power leads him to a tragic downfall, as he finally gains access to the lantern room only to be consumed by the overwhelming force of the light.
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