Let's discuss the ending of Robert Eggers' mind-bending film The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures /

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star in Robert Eggers' horrifying and surreal 2019 film The Lighthouse, a fascinating character study of two supremely damaged men forced to exist in close quarters after they are marooned at an outpost by a terrible storm.

The ending of The Lighthouse has led to hundreds of different theories and countless articles about what it could all mean. Here's our interpretation. Spoilers ahead for the ending.

Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures /

What happens to Thomas Howard and Thomas Wake in the end?

Toward the end of the movie, we learn that "Ephraim Winslow" is, in fact, Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson). The real Ephraim Winslow was Howard's former foreman, whom he allowed to drown because he was such a terrible guy. But was Winslow really a bad guy? It's important to note that The Lighthouse is one of those tricky films where it's unclear if these characters are telling the truth. Howard could easily be an unreliable narrator.

As tensions flare and boil throughout the film, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Howard finally reach a breaking point in their relationship and attack each other, and I'm sure them drinking turpentine together didn't help matters. Howard discovers Wake's logbook and sees he's been writing terrible things about him, including suggesting that Howard doesn't deserve to get paid.

A furious Howard then attacks Wake and tries to bury him alive. They go back and forth like this, each one trying to kill the other, until Howard finally gets the upper hand and successfully murders Wake. With him out of the way, he steals the lighthouse keys and ascends the steps, finally looking into the lantern.

Earlier in the movie, Wake warns Howard that those who stare into the lighthouse light are condemning themselves to a terrible punishment, a "Prothean" one, specifically. For those who know Greek mythology, he's referring to the god of fire, Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus to give to humanity. As punishment, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock where an eagle ate his liver every day (it regrows each night).

Fittingly, The Lighthouse ends with Howard's naked body on the beach, being pecked over by seagulls.

So, what does that mean?

There are a myriad of different interpretations out there. One of the simplest is just that when Howard looked into the light, he either saw nothing, thus realizing everything he experienced on the island was for nothing, or he saw some kind of terrible vision that caused him to fall down the steps, killing him.

Post-fall, he might have limped outside onto the sand before collapsing and succumbing to his injuries. Howard kills a gull earlier in the film, which Wake had warned him not to do because of an old superstition about seagulls being reincarnated sailors. To kill one is to damn yourself. So, of course, that comes back to literally bite Howard in the a**.

Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures /

Lighthouses are often seen as a symbol of hope, which is why the horror genre loves to invert the expectation

The entire purpose of a lighthouse is to prevent death. Sailors search for that beacon of light to guide them through the darkness, but many sailors have died near lighthouses or even because of them. Many are rumored to be haunted, yet they're also seen as a symbol of hope in a lot of stories. That's why the horror genre loves to play with viewer expectations.

In this movie, the lighthouse is a source of terror more than hope. Howard thinks it will grant him salvation, but, in reality, it leads to his death. There are some similarities between The Lighthouse and Annihilation, which also uses a lighthouse as a beacon for the expeditions journeying into the Shimmer. In Annihilation, Natalie Portman's character, Lena, finds something horrific inside the lighthouse, just like Howard does in this film.

Lighthouses are prominent phallic symbols, especially in this movie, where the two main characters have significant homoerotic tension.

What did Howard see in the lighthouse?

There's no concrete answer to this question, as Eggers' intention was obviously to play with viewer expectations and leave plenty of things for us to ponder long after the credits roll. I don't think the specifics of what Howard saw are as important as its impact on him. Something he saw or realized made him stumble and ultimately led to his death.

But of course there are tons of theories out there that the light was actually a portal that led Howard to his Hell or he saw the face of God and it horrified him. Maybe he really didn't see much at all but the blinding nature of the light illuminated his sins and scared him so bad he fell, or maybe he saw the truth of the entire universe.

There might never have been a real lighthouse or outpost at all. Howard and Wake could have been trapped in their version of Hell the entire time. Perhaps the "outpost" is just an illusion. We'll never know for sure, and that's okay! It's fun to theorize, as The Lighthouse clearly wants you to.

The Lighthouse is now streaming on Max. To stay up to date on thrillers, sci-fi, and horror, bookmark 1428 Elm and follow our Facebook page and Twitter account!

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