Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old.
The Lighthouse is all about madness, myth, and superstition. Robert Eggers’ nautical nightmare follows a pair of 19th-century lighthouse keepers — Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) — who spend their days getting drunk and feeling isolated. Paranoia and psychosis eventually set in. Mermaids and monsters appear to Ephraim. Then after some drinking, farting, fighting, masturbating, and murder, the film ends with Thomas being eaten by seagulls.
But what does it all mean?
In seafaring lore, seagulls are said to be possessed by the souls of dead sailors. Therefore, if someone ends up killing or harming one of the birds, they will experience their own misfortune later on. In one of The Lighthouse’s most memorable scenes, Thomas beats a seagull to death. Therefore, the final moment can be interpreted as the spirits punishing the young lighthouse keeper for disrespecting them. That’s one way to read it, but there’s more to this ending than meets the eye.
Thomas and Ephraim are similar to the Greek figures Proteus and Prometheus. The former is an ocean god, also known as “The Old Man of the Sea,” who was a keeper of knowledge and a friend of the water creatures. He also kept all of that knowledge to himself, much like Thomas refusing to tell his colleague what’s being kept at the top of the lighthouse.
Prometheus, meanwhile, was a trickster who climbed Mount Olympus, stole fire from the gods, and created humanity. This pissed off Zeus, who had the trickster chained to a rock and feasted on by an eagle. Ephraim climbing the lighthouse, discovering its secrets, and being eaten by seagulls is an obvious nod to Prometheus’ story.
While the legends didn’t interact with each other in the Greek lore, Eggers took elements from both of their stories and made them fit together. He even talked about it in an interview with Collider.
“[W]e realized, ‘Well, Prometheus and Proteus never hung out in any Greek myths before, but that seems to be what is kind of happening here,’ and Prometheus might be taking on some characteristics that he hasn’t in the past. But you know what? The classical authors did that all the time.”
Eggers has also been open about his fondness for Jean Delville, a Belgian symbolist painter who depicted Prometheus stealing the fire from Olympus in one of his works. The painting was one of Eggers’ many inspirations while bringing The Lighthouse to life, which further solidifies the film’s fascination with Greek mythology. The painting also presents the trickster in a glorious, sexy, and heroic light, which explains why Ephraim — for all his hideous elements and faults — is quite a sympathetic character with understandable motivations and curiosities. Plus, both Prometheus and Ephraim are naked in their respective images.
With this in mind, the ending can be interpreted as Ephraim being punished because he saw something in the light that was out of this world. Of course, what that could have been is anyone’s guess. However, since light is a universal symbol of illumination, spirituality, wisdom, and intelligence, perhaps he learned all about the secrets of the universe and life itself. The type of knowledge that the gods don’t want lesser beings to understand.