In the last few days, we’ve taken a journey remembering the acclaimed psychological horror ‘The witch’from Robert Eggers – a debut that was marked in the genre and that would work as the initial chapter of a career still young, but with an identity that would bring horror back to its peak.
Now, the time has come to revisit his second foray into the entertainment world: four years after his official debut, Eggers returned even more passionate about art that put him in the spotlight with a claustrophobic, tense narrative backed by mythological and classic aspects: ‘The headlight’enchanting the public again and reaffirming its importance in the contemporary audiovisual scenario.
The main narrative of the feature film is much deeper than we could imagine, carrying with it an extensive symbology that may have gone unnoticed by spectators – even the most aficionados of cinema and period works. Set in the 19th century on some islet in Wales and loosely based on a true story, the plot is focused on just two characters: the young Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and the arrogant sea lion Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Winslow lands a temporary job as Wake’s “pupil” at a gigantic lighthouse, gradually descending into a dangerous insanity that turns any drama into a deadly adventure within the human psyche.
But nothing is what it seems to be: Eggers, as mentioned above, merges in the same cinematographic scope, soaked in breathtaking artistic onslaughts, homages to Greco-Roman culture, to the various cathartic myths of Dante Alighieri and even to the maritime incursions promoted by the legendary novelist H.P. Lovecraft. And, in fact, each of these layers, when analyzed in depth, only contributes to exponentially increasing our fascination with this narcotic and twisted fairy tale.
PROTEUS AND PROMISED
Wake and Winslow work like two sides of the same coin, behaving like a pair that seems to never get along: Pattinson’s character brings the vigor and rebelliousness of youth and, as hard as he works in all the tasks at which he was assigned, Dafoe’s criticizes him for practically every little mistake he makes, showing himself to be wiser, older and respectable even for his compulsory and mandatory personality.
In any case, the two men have an undeniable chemistry between them, which leads us to the first interpretation of their personalities and the narrative arcs available to them: Thomas, having lived on that terrible and lonely island for so many years, works as an extension of the marine deity titled Proteus.
In Greek mythology, Proteus is the son of the deities Poseidon and Thetis. Although he doesn’t share the same spotlight as other iconic characters of the aforementioned culture, he has the important task of taking care of his father’s flock – and, in the earthly environment created by Eggers, Wake embodies that person by becoming the guardian of the enormous lighthouse.
There are several elements that contribute to the theory: in addition to the director’s official statement, we realize that, like Proteus, the old sailor carries several ominous omens for the dynamics between the duo and the island itself. Several times, Thomas prevents the irreverent pupil from killing the seagulls that inhabit that island territory, premeditating a tragedy that eventually comes to fruition. What’s more, his stories and his way of behaving at night (such as his locking himself on the traffic light’s floor and dancing naked around the gigantic lightbulb) involve Winslow in a way that is intoxicating enough to turn him into a madman. .
As if that weren’t enough, Ephraim is bombarded by illusory visions of a mermaid that runs aground on the rocky formations of the insula – whose presence is predicted from the first act, during which he encounters a carved wooden figure of the mythical creature. Several speculations about his appearances have been made and the main one also refers to the myth of Proteus, whose magical abilities allow him to transfigure into sea monsters.
Although they never divided Greco-Roman tales, the story of Prometheus lends numerous references to ‘The headlight’. In this case, it is Winslow who embodies the character: just like the person Greek, he is attracted by the desire for knowledge and, who knows, to take it to others. Now, if Prometheus contradicted the gods and stole fire from Olympus to bring it to mortals, Ephraim is attracted to the lighthouse, aiming to discover the secrets that inhabit the top floor of the building.
Following their own desires, both characters betray forces far greater than they imagined and pave the way for ruin. Winslow counters the prophetic soliloquies of his “commander,” so to speak, and impetuously kills one of the gulls. THE foreshadowing designed by Eggers comes to fruition with the last two scenes of the feature film, in which the young man approaches the traffic light, taken by curiosity, and lets himself be contaminated by the impacting force of light – falling down the stairs and becoming food for the only animals on the island.
If the allegorical image is familiar, it is because Prometheus has a similar fate. After all, in one version of his story, he infuriates Zeus and, as punishment, is tied up on top of Mount Caucasus, condemned for eternity to be pecked by an eagle. Here, the seagulls do the work, but the symbology is so accurate that it becomes imperative.
HP Lovecraft was an American writer and is, to this day, considered one of the greatest names in horror literature in history. Serving as inspiration for authors such as Stephen King e R.L. StineLovecraft specialized in the genre in question, creating iconic universes hostile to man, with narratives indifferent to the activities and beliefs of mortals.
His pessimistic forays that challenged Romantic, Enlightenment and even Christian values were ruthlessly influenced by the story-teller’s nightmares – and one of them haunted and still haunts many of Lovecraft’s regulars: “The Call of Cthulhu”, published in 1928, introduced the titular creature who was embraced by Eggers in ‘The headlight’ in the most unexpected way possible.
Described as a cross between a giant, an octopus and a dragon, with a tentacled head and scaly body, Cthulhu represents an evil so ancient and terrible that the sight of it would drive any human insane. In the feature film, this monster is not materialized at any time, but is transcribed into the lighthouse itself.
From the beginning, the tower that encases the majestic beam is the setting for several scenic ambiguities. The searchlight has the main function of signaling for the ships not to crash against the rocks, but it serves as a fundamental part of the insanity that befalls the protagonists: its light is the physical emergence of a drug, an addictive substance that hour after hour makes us want more until we can’t live without it. Well, that’s how Winslow’s downfall is outlined: despite knowing that the lighthouse is like any other, he begins to suspect what Wake is hiding and is fueled by a primal need to unravel all the unknowns.
The lighthouse is also one of the characters and, in addition, it is the main antagonist: following in the footsteps of Cthulhu, the tower is a primordial creature, which inhabits the Earth even before the existence of men. After all, it seems, he has simply been there since the beginning (not of the plot, but of the times). His source of power is fire, fueled with frightening constancy by the servants – in this case, Thomas and Ephraim. At the end of the day, we realize the inevitable: he’s extreme and sordidly Lovecraftian.
HELL IS US
Another possibility of narrative interpretation, but less unfounded, is that the island would represent purgatory and, despite the facts pointing to a more psychic than spiritual direction, certain elements contribute to this perspective gaining strength.
We have, for example, the fact that Winslow arrives at that place by boat. The reference can be found in Charon’s barge, which carries the souls of the dead through the first circle of Dante’s Inferno, represented by limbo. Both scenarios are marked by hopelessness and the lack of any prospect and act as indicators of this brief hypothesis.
The second (and perhaps last) aspect is the dynamism of the troubled relationship between Winslow and Wake: Pattinson’s character is essentially a rebel and, arriving at what we understand as purgatory, will pass several tests to reach paradise or be trapped in hell. To help him – or make this journey of self-discovery even more complicated – Dafoe poses as the old know-it-all and tempts him into the most diverse sins: killing the seagull, getting drunk and acquiring knowledge that doesn’t belong to him.
Ultimately, Winslow fails to purge himself of his banal life and is engulfed in the ruin he himself has premeditated. And, blinded by a power he could not know or bear, he is put in check once more and dies within his own death.