Spoilers for The Lighthouse below!
We have all likely chased after something that we greatly desire. This unnamed drive could be towards any number of different things, and our desire for it could be misled and have potentially disastrous consequences. Ephraim Winslow’s (Robert Pattinson) specific drive is to discover what it is like at the top of the lighthouse that he has been keeping for four weeks on a remote island.
Ultimately, Ephraim’s curiosity proves fatal.
This is interesting to take a look at, because Ephraim doesn’t take this job due to a desire to see what was at the top of this lighthouse. Rather, he took the job to get away from his previous life. He was running from something.
Ephraim’s running brings him into the employ of Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), who has been keeping the lighthouse for years and years. He knows its ins and outs, and he has a very specific way that he wants everything to run. To make sure Ephraim knows this right away, he begins to assert his power through a multitude of means, including flatulence, and more importantly, keeping him from entering the top of the lighthouse itself.
This ongoing power struggle, combined with the total isolation being on this island brings, is what really sends Ephraim into a downward spiral (which is communicated at the end by him literally falling down the spiral staircase in the lighthouse). He realizes that there is nothing for him on this island, when all that he wanted was to be able to start new. This island provides no chance of that.
The isolation, then, causes him to have to focus on something, and that turns out to be this consuming desire to see the top of the lighthouse. Cue the hallucinations and the rapid (or slow – it isn’t made clear due to the unreliable narrator) descent into total madness.
By the end, the viewer is left to ponder the importance of recognizing a drive and purpose in life. Ephraim’s tendency to be a drifter is exactly what brings him to his own demise. He has built up anger due to his loss of agency at the hands of Thomas, he is becoming more and more frustrated at the isolation and loneliness, and he is chasing something that ultimately has no meaning.
All of these ideas come together for writer/director Robert Eggers. He uses Ephraim’s story as a cautionary tale, and in a way, as an encouragement to the viewers. Ephraim’s endeavor was ultimately meaningless and dangerous, but ours don’t have to be.
The Lighthouse is a call to action – a call to find a passion and do something meaningful with your life. He isn’t interested in defining what might be meaningful for a given person, but instead he is using his shining lighthouse as a warning against complacency. It is a guide to a better and hopeful future.