[Warning: Ther be major spoilers ahead of ye!]
Originally, when I was first researching my column, I hadn’t planned to include this film. To me, this film is so clearly gay that an analysis of its homoerotic subtext would be like arguing the sky is blue. However, when scanning through tweets and reviews of this film I found very few people talking about this interpretation. Perhaps I’ve come accustomed to declaring everything gay, but this one seemed too obvious to miss. Plus, if it gives me the opportunity to write about one of my new favourite films, why wouldn’t I dedicate an edition of this column to this noir horror delight. And so, let’s talk about how gay The Lighthouse really is.
The Lighthouse follows the isolated lives of two wickies sent to the furthest island in the sea to run a lighthouse. Our two leads are Tom (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) – who we later discover is actually called Tommy, so this is the name I’ll continue to use for him throughout. We see these characters try to co-inhabit while going about their daily work tasks. Tom is the older, experienced wicker and spends most of his time bossing Tommy (the apprentice) about, usually in-between some impressive loud farts. As expected in a horror where two characters are trapped in isolation, things start to get tense and ultimately bonkers mad. Tommy especially convinces himself that Tom won’t allow him into the light room because Tom is having an affair with the light. Tommy believes he sees Tom naked in a suggestive manner with some giant tentacles and this image haunts him until he is obsessed with reaching this room, which creates paranoia around Tom and that elusive light. If giant pleasuring tentacles aren’t enough, there’s also a siren tempting Tommy into the water, and a group of sassy, taunting seagulls which are apparently the reincarnated souls of dead sailors. Eventually, the two are stranded on the island longer than expected thanks to a storm, meaning they can only drink, sing shanties, wank, and spill their beans with one another, divulging in long buried secrets. It’s here that Tommy confesses to a history involving his past post as a logger where he may have murdered his platinum blonde haired colleague and taken his name for his own.
Before delving into the more nuanced interpretations, let’s get the obvious one out the way. It’s a lighthouse – the phallic imagery is OUT. Even writer and director Robert Eggers pointed out this imagery in an interview with AV Club, saying: “nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus”.
Now looking at the characters, it can be pretty heavily suggested that Tommy is gay and, given the times, closeted. Tommy is a young and attractive lad with feminine features, even Tom declared his eyes to be, “bright as a lady”. When we learn more about Tommy’s past we find out his last job was as a logger, in the isolated regions of Canada, meaning he went from being surrounded by wood to being surrounded by seamen (oh how I wish I could include a wink emoji). The audience is given minimum insight into the relationship between Tommy and his last colleague – all that we really know is that he rocked a particularly stylish platinum blonde hairstyle and that he’s dead, having died on the job by falling into the water and getting trapped under floating logs. We also soon learn that the identity Tommy initially used (Ephraim) was originally his. Tommy can’t seem to get his mind off his attractive, blonde friend, often remembering him from the perspective of being behind him. My interpretation of their relationship is that they were lovers and during one of their many long, isolated nights together, they went full Brokeback Mountain. Even if this did not actually happen, perhaps this was at least Tommy’s fantasy. Considering the act of Tommy taking his name, this behavior suggests a tender and affectionate attitude, almost like the tradition of taking your partners name after marriage. It’s not completely clear if Tommy murdered Ephraim or if he simply could not save him from a terrible accident – perhaps in a fit of repressed rage he pushed the man he was confusingly attracted to into the water, or perhaps he simply blames himself for not being able to save his lover. Either way, Tommy’s workplace history implies he may have a habit of falling in love with his colleagues, and the repeated isolation of his work placement may either suggest he’s trying to run from a messy history or that he’s taking advantage of the scenario and disposing of his torrid affairs evidence. As Tommy later tries to literally bury his feelings for Tom by burying him alive, it does seem young Tommy has a bit of a pattern.
During the long, lonely nights, Tommy attempts to distract his gay desires and finds solace in a mermaid statue, using this salt water temptress as inspiration for his “alone time”. Mermaids have represented a sexual siren in fiction for centuries, with one of their most infamous appearances being in Homer’s Odyssey. Despite the prolific nature of this temptress, one small part of their anatomy has raised questions in the past – what about their genitals? In this sense, mermaids are fairly ambiguous in the genitalia department and perhaps this was comforting for a sexually confused Tommy. As well as the opportunity to project whatever genitalia he wants onto them, they are also mythical creatures, meaning he could fantasise without ever having to go through with this scenario. Except he does. Later in the film he encounters what he assumes is a naked woman stranded on the rocks of the island and when he goes to investigate, he discovers her to be a mermaid. At first entranced by her alluring beauty, he (and the camera) gazes upon her only to look down at her tail and see a huge monstrous vagina. What does Tommy do upon seeing this vagina? Screams and runs away.
The reason for Tommy’s reaction is fairly obvious – the mermaid was never Tommy’s siren. His true siren is revealed a little later.
During a particularly absurd and hectic scene where Tom and Tommy tussle, Tommy is straddling Tom, holding him down when suddenly Tom’s appearance changes. Tom is adorned with long seaweed strands like locks of hair – in Tommy’s perception, Tom becomes a mermaid. Tom is Tommy’s temptress, his siren. As Tommy witnesses this transformation, giant tentacles weave around him as if in a tender (yet still sinister) embrace. Even within the stage direction for this scene, there is a heavy erotic undertone. The fight is described with language that could easily describe a sex scene: “Animalistic grunting, breathing, sweating. Legs entwined. Veiny throats, veiny biceps. Moving back and forth, back and forth. Wrestling, breathing, grunting, sweating”. Tommy is ultimately aghast by this homoerotic shift, but the audience is not.
During one of Tommy’s furious wanking seshs in a supply closet (need I point out the obviousness of closet subtext?), the audience is given an insight to his fantasies. Although they begin focussed on the mermaid, his mind soon drifts and suggestive images fleet by, including some of Ephraim and tentacles, which we’ve come to associate with Tom’s own lighthouse “special time”. Tommy cums and collapses in despair, distraught he is unable to fully repress his true desire. Originally, Eggers had spliced a shot of an erect penis into this montage, however he was advised by A24 to remove it so they could attain a lower rating. Ultimately, Eggers had to settle for a more subtle shot of an erect lighthouse.
When considering the relationship between Tommy and Tom, the most popular interpretation of their dynamic, and of the story as a whole, is one that takes inspiration from Greek mythology. Prometheus and Proteus, though not having a relationship in Greek mythology, inspired these characters. Proteus – a sea God described by Homer in his Odyssey as “the old man of the sea” – is Tom, whereas Prometheus – a trickster who defied the Gods and stole fire (or light) from them and was inevitably punished for the crime by the torture of having an eagle peck out his organs – is represented by Tommy. Following the general storyline of The Lighthouse, this theory checks out. Tom is the old man of the sea who is the keeper of knowledge and light, which Tommy so obsessively wants. Even the ending follows this interpretation, with Tommy reaching the light only to be overcome by its power and fall down the stairs to land outside, where his organs are pecked out by a seagull (who is likely the reincarnation of Tom). However, this interpretation doesn’t hinder the homoerotic subtext, if anything they work in harmony.
God is the ultimate daddy. He gives life, people worship and love him and yet he’s just emotionally distant enough to start a complex. Comparing this to Tom and Tommy’s relationship – Tom is bossy, he becomes enraged when duties are not kept, and he keeps a log book detailing all of Tommy’s “sins” which includes “abusing himself” in the supply closet. There’s no wonder Tommy developed a daddy complex for his lighthouse God.
The Lighthouse is overflowing with gay subtext, from the tender dancing scene shared between Tom and Tommy, to the comical arguments between them that play out like a drunk husband and upset housewife (“Yer fond of me lobster, ain’t ye?”). Ignoring the gay subtext in this film limits the pure brilliance of The Lighthouse. Historically, the genre of horror is a bounty of gay subtext and this film delivers it in waves!