From acclaimed director of 2015’s, ‘The VVitch,’ Robert Eggers once again delivers a true haunting piece of art with his 2019 release, ‘The Lighthouse’. Shrouded in mysticism, the film recognises elements of traditional mythology, as well as forging a path ahead into a new interpretation of morality and connection. On an unknown island in an unspecified time period, two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) must maintain their place of inhabitance and ensure that the light keeps burning. Whilst Dafoe’s character resides on the island permanently, Pattinson has been employed for a four week period, but events quickly spiral out of control which may prevent him from leaving so easily.
From early in the narrative, Dafoe warns Pattinson of the danger that comes from harming a sea-bird, warning that “they hide the souls of lost sailors.” No matter what comes to fruition from such a warning, it seems clear that the writers – Eggers brothers Robert and Max – are making reference to the ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,’ a 19th century poem by acclaimed Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The stanzas warn of a sea captain who kills an albatross after it helps himself and his crew find safe passage away from an ice jam, resulting in an encounter with a personified idea of Death, which ultimately leads the loss of the entire crew – save for the captain. When first killed, the poet describes how it “’Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, That bring the fog and mist,” Within ‘The Lighthouse,’ the keepers also experience a change of wind after similar events, with Dafoe’s character exclaiming, “It’s the calm before the storm, Winslow. She were a gentle westerly wind you’re cursing.” The parallels between both narratives show signs of clear influence, but the Eggers brothers take on their own interpretation of how such events may play out when developing the narrative of ‘The Lighthouse.’
For stealing fire from the gods and providing it as a gift to humanity in Greek Mythology, Prometheus was sentenced to an eternity bound to a rock, as an eagle –the emblem of Zeus – plucked at his liver. Once again, the narrative of the ‘The Lighthouse,’ returns to ideas of traditional mythology and draws clear cinematic influence from such an idea of punishment, which are in some cases replicated by a shot-for-shot retelling of the myth. When usually incorporated into literary texts, such as Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus,” this Greek myth is closely associated with the idea of the hubris, where an individual works at a level which should only be achieved by the Gods. In Shelley’s novel, Dr Frankenstein never reaps the rewards of his hubristic achievements – and much the same could be said for the lighthouse keepers in Eggers film. As the fantastical blurs into the factual, and the intensity of the film begins to ramp up, the blocking, cinematography and lighting all begin to drift towards the insane, whilst the narrative remains contrastingly grounded in reality. Even in appearance, Dafoe can be seen as a reanimation of Zeus, whilst the younger and leaner Pattinson takes up the role of Prometheus. However, the story is not as clear-cut as that of the traditional myth, with the morality and intentions of the keepers corrupted by the drinking habits, relentless work and uncertainty on the length of time in which they have been on the island. As Dafoe sadistically mutters, “Help me to recollect.”
Once again considering the influence that Greek mythology has on Robert Egger’s directing and writing, we must concern ourselves with the ideas presented in Sisyphus’ story. A cruel Greek king, Sisyphus was damned to eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to fall back down whenever he neared the top. Throughout ‘The Lighthouse,’ there are very clear reflections on such an idea found within the cinematography and performance of the film, as the actions and moral choices of certain characters result in a punishment which reflects what the Greek king endured as a result of his punishment. Perhaps there is no simpler adaptation of this story than the light which transfixes Pattinsons character, which appears to be unreachable, as a result of either his own physical limitations, the presence of Dafoe and his locks and keys, or a mental barrier which once again strays into the territory of the mythical.
Though such analysis of film can at first appear as unnecessary or clutching at straws, I do believe that the way in which different pieces of media can influence one another is important to consider, especially when the original texts cross centuries and borders to become a part of something new. ‘The Lighthouse’ is a testament to the power of writers who appreciate what has come before, and seek to create something original.