What’s Up With the Ending of "The Lighthouse"?

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters from Unsplash I watched this film twice in one day to get the most out of the $5.99 rental on Amazon, but the second time I watched it through, I started to look at the ending a different way. The final two scenes showcase the death of Robert Pattinson’s character in two different ways. He experiences two different deaths. Why? Let’s start from the beginning. 

The Lighthouse tells the story of two lighthouse keepers off the New England coast in the 1890’s that are stuck making repairs and tending to the property for four weeks. Robert Pattinson’s character, Ephraim Winslow, gets stuck doing backbreaking labor around the property and taking his boss’s demeaning commands. His boss, William Dafoe’s character, Thomas Wake, tends to the light at the top of the lighthouse and is very protective of this duty to the point where he consistently locks the entrance to it and will not let Winslow up there even though Winslow wants to tend to the light which their manual even says to take alternating shifts. Here, Winslow’s curiosity in the light grows. 

Winslow becomes increasingly irritated with Wake’s unbearable personality. When Winslow wrongfully kills a seagull with immense force (disturbing scene), the wind changes (signaling the major turning point in the film), and a violent storm approaches. In their isolation during the storm, Winslow’s character begins to crumble. He is dealing with his troubling past which he later confesses involves him taking responsibility for the death of his boss at a timber company because his boss got swallowed up by logs somehow while he watched and did not help. He reveals to Wake that his real name is Thomas Howard. It is interesting that both men’s real name is Thomas, connecting these two seemingly very different characters at their basic identity. Winslow explains that he changed his name to start over and not bear this guilt any longer. He had hoped that his guilt would die with his first identity, Thomas Howard, thus being able, to begin with, a clean slate as Ephraim Winslow. He even demands Wake to call him Winslow at the beginning of the film, instead of “lad” or “dog” which is what his prior now-deceased boss called him. Winslow obviously didn’t want this constant reminder of his guilty past and attempts to reinforce his new identity, convincing Wake and himself of his non-problematic character. As Wake tests Winslow’s patience more and more throughout the film, Winslow slowly starts to break down, leading to the crumbling of this identity. When both parties are drinking during the storm, Wake confronts Winslow about killing the gull which he lies about, and Wake puts a curse on Winslow, mentioning that he will slowly die by the beaks of gulls then fade into the vast sea, his life reduced to nothing. This outburst by Wake is important to understand, as it foreshadows the final shot of the film.

In the second to last scene of the film, Thomas Howard steals Wake’s keys after trying to bury him alive and kill him with an ax later in self-defense when Wake survives the first attempt. Howard crawls up the spiral lighthouse stairs and finally sees what is inside the light. The viewer does not get to see what this light holds. Instead, the camera focuses on Howard’s reaction which can be interpreted as laughter and crying maybe, but this laughter could entail that there was nothing inside the light, therefore, his whole journey to get here was pointless. Symbolically speaking, Howard needed to “see the light” in order to gain redemption for his guilt about his boss’s murder and now the murder of Thomas Wake. Once seeing the light, he falls backward and tumbles down all of the stairs (signifying that he’s spiraling down to his death which is what the film is about essentially). This scene reminds me a lot of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Howard seeks the light and redemption that it holds and gets burned to cause him to fall much like Icarus. The next scene is confusing because it doesn’t make sense continuity-wise. We assume that Howard dies after falling down all those stairs, but the next shot is of Pattinson naked on the rocks being eaten alive by seagulls as he’s awake and suffering. So, how did he get from the bottom of the lighthouse, while clothed, to the rocks suddenly naked and being eaten alive? Here’s my theory, finally: 

I interpret these two different deaths as the death of Thomas Howard vs. the death of Ephraim Winslow. Thomas Howard was the one who held guilt thus needing redemption for this and the sins he’s committed. The death of Thomas Howard involves him gaining insight or salvation from the light and then falling to his death. The next shot of him laying on the rocks naked and eaten alive portrays the symbolic death of Ephraim Winslow, who originally killed the gull and got that curse placed on him by Wake, which he said would happen to Winslow exactly. If you look at each scene as the death of Pattinson’s two identities, this scenario makes the most sense. I have not read any articles attempting to explain the ending of The Lighthouse, so here is my opinion of what the ending could potentially mean. But what a disturbing ending it was. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this film. Keep an eye on the professional cinematography as well as it was shot on black and white 35mm negative film, a rarity in today’s digital world!

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