WARNING: This article contains spoilers for The Lighthouse.
The cast of The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers’s follow-up to The Witch, is composed of two men: Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. In the film, which played at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the pair play lighthouse keepers — one a surly seasoned veteran with many a story to spin, and the other a novice with secrets aplenty and a propensity for silence. For around 98% of the film’s running time, they are the only two people in the movie. But then there is a mermaid. She doesn’t turn up for long, but she certainly leaves an impression.
Dafoe and Pattinson play Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, two men who are sent on a four-week shift to a lighthouse during especially treacherous weather.
It’s a staggering achievement overall, a farcical thriller about fragile masculinity, gaslighting, the power of stories, and co-dependency, one that finds fascinating levels of psychedelia among its metaphorical and literal shades of gray (the movie is shot in black and white), all anchored by layered and prickly performances by the leads. Pattinson has never been crazier and it is a delight to watch. All that and there are some top-notch fart jokes in there too. In this claustrophobic environment, set by the cruel sea and dominated by the menace of isolation, it is the pull between old sailor folklore and modern cynicism that provides much of the initial tension between the lead characters. Wake has seemingly spent much of his life devoted to the lighthouse business and is driven by old traditions, sea shanties, and a single-minded obsession with his occupation and the allure it invites. For Winslow, it’s just a job and its attached myths are something to instantly dismiss, right until he cannot anymore. Enter the mermaid.
We at SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS have written a lot about the allure of the beastly romance and good old-fashioned monster f*cking, but typically we discuss it in terms of women’s desire, with the man as the sexualized creature. In The Lighthouse, it is the man whose mind succumbs to the monstrous fantasy, with the woman being the objectified monster. The fetishistic fantasy of the mermaid and siren is a common one throughout mythology as well as pop culture. On a purely aesthetic level, it’s an easy kink to sell: a literal half-and-half of beauty and monster that entices men through trickery and their mystical allure.
Mermaids, sirens, and other such sea creatures have been a prominent feature in myth and legend for centuries. The ancient Assyrian goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid after accidentally killing her human lover. The Sirens of Greek mythology were the ultimate temptresses who lured sailors to their death through their heavenly voices. Through the selkies of Celtic folklore, we had the means to explore themes of sexual coercion through the metaphor of a woman stripped of her skin by a man who sought to own them. Supposed sightings of mermaids have been plentiful over the centuries, reported by Christopher Columbus in the 1400s and even as recently as 2012, when workers in Zimbabwe claimed mermaids had hounded them away from the reservoir they were working on. Mermaid hoaxes are just as plentiful throughout history. Even P.T. Barnum had his infamous "Fiji mermaid" he exhibited in his collection to curious visitors. Mermaids are not always characterized as beautiful women but that remains the prevailing image thanks to stories like The Little Mermaid. So, of course, there are people who want to tap that.
Sexualizing a mermaid for human (presumably male) consumption is, to put it mildly, a serious exercise in speculative gynecology. A lot of mermaid erotica simply skates past this problem, with a handwave that explains mermaids just have human-style genitalia hidden under their scales. In one novel I read many years ago, the mermaid was stabbed with a knife to create a necessary opening. It’s a fantasy-driven more by the human part and the implication of nudity that comes with it (or, at the very least, a fetching shell bra), so thinking about it too deeply is discouraged. The Lighthouse, however, decides to offer a rather literal solution to this problem.
For Pattinson’s character, sexual release comes from a tiny carving of a mermaid he finds in his lodgings. While seeking release through a session of auto-pilot, he fantasizes about a moment of passion on the shores that may or may not have actually happened. When he reaches her tail area, there is a very large vagina at crotch level, blooming like a Georgia O’Keefe painting, and he goes at it. She is a dangerous creature who siren cries at Pattinson to partly goad him when he realizes she is a mermaid, but he still succumbs. Or he doesn’t. The film is deliberately ambiguous in how real Winslow’s descent into madness is, something it does with terrifying aplomb.
Winslow is trapped on this godforsaken rock with a man who may be manipulating him into madness, but he’s also halfway there himself. He begins to drink heavily, sneak around looking for evidence of something he’s not sure exists, and dances then get into harsh and vaguely homoerotic fights with Wake. A man who positions himself as a stalwart loyalist to the rules of the business soon breaks them all, and there is no greater taboo in these circumstances than to not only fraternize with “the enemy” but go against lifetimes of established seafaring legend. It seems that everything is bad luck for a lighthouse keeper (at least according to the shifty Wake) but getting down and dirty on the rocks with a mermaid is definitely not advisable. Are the stories true or do they simply become true if you believe them enough? Does it really matter? Not for Winslow.
The mermaid isn’t the true monster of The Lighthouse — that honor belongs to Pattinson and Dafoe respectively, as their characters reveal themselves to be craven little creatures with no morals whose descent into madness only further reveals the underlying rot of man. However, what that creature and her sexual allure do in the context of this story is to highlight the ways the beautiful and grotesque all too often intersect. It’s the theme at the heart of The Lighthouse and one executed with such potency that the movie cannot help but be one of the year’s best. Besides, aren’t you just dying to see the future Batman do the horizontal monster mash?
The Lighthouse will open in American theaters on October 18.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.