‘The Lighthouse,’ ‘Harpoon,’ and Men Losing Their Minds at the Hands of the Sea

In 'The Lighthouse' and 'Harpoon,' maritime lore is an allegory for masculinity and the performance of power.

Epic Pictures, A24

You know, someone told me once that the sea finds out everything you’ve done wrong.

Ever since men began sailing ships and faring the mighty sea, they were ruled by superstitions: seabirds who carry the souls of dead sailors, sirens who seduce seafarers to their deaths, the wrath of Saint Elmo’s Fire and Davy Jones’ locker, among hundreds of others. Sailors often braced death on their voyages — or at the very least endured unseemly living conditions — so they put their faith, and contempt, towards god in the form of myths and legends.

On the surface, maritime myths don’t seem all that relatable or contemporary, but these themes have made their way into recent cinema with surprisingly universal relevance. In Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse and Rob Grant’s Harpoon, these superstitions provide a unique lens to understand the timeless stronghold of masculinity and the performance of power.

Set off a New England shore in the 19th century, The Lighthouse follows the relationship between Thomas (Willem Dafoe), a curmudgeonly lighthouse keeper, and his new assistant Ephraim (Robert Pattinson). From the very beginning, a hierarchy of dominance is established. Ephraim does the grunt work of polishing the brass pipes, swabbing the floors, tidying their living quarters, and shoveling coal, while Thomas tends to the lantern. 

This daily routine is overseen by a domineering Thomas, who asserts his power by giving Ephraim these laborious tasks and criticizing the ways he does them at every chance. Numerous times, Thomas is seen closely observing Ephraim from the glowing perch of the lighthouse, akin to some kind of omnipresent, god-like figure.

Thomas witnesses Ephraim killing a seabird, despite his warnings against it. In Seafaring Lore & Legend, Peter D. Jeans writes “It was a dreadful thing to kill such a creature, little short of a crime, and the seaman who did so was often subjected to a fearful penalty.” Ephraim considers these superstitions to be nothing short of tall tales, but Thomas harbors this incident, believing it is the reason for the catastrophic changing of the tides.

The lantern is also a curious character in The Lighthouse, as it is both the ultimate symbol of power, as well as the catalyst for the wickie’s descent into madness. 

Invented in the 1820s by French physicist Augustin Fresnel, the fresnel lens dramatically changed how sailors navigated. The massive, jewel-like lamp could illuminate the route for miles, even in dark and stormy weather — a vast improvement from duller oil lamps backed by mirrors that sent many a sailor to their death. 

Eggers’ depiction of the fresnel lens is tantalizing. Its beam is so strong that it’s sometimes hard to look at, even as a viewer, but there is something hypnotizing about it nonetheless. 

The lantern is an object of carnal desire. In one scene, Thomas masturbates in its unearthly glow, semen dripping from the grates as Ephraim watches from below in disgust. On second glance, though, something resembling a squid’s slimy tentacle makes its way across the grates. Thomas finishes by calling to Veritas, the goddess of truth in Roman mythology. There’s something not quite right about the lantern, but its allure is impossible for Ephraim to deny.

Ephraim drives himself mad for the chance to see the lantern with his own eyes. He sees visions of mermaids, Thomas, sex, drowning, seabirds — and it’s all-consuming and unbearable because the only thing standing between him and the lantern is Thomas’ stronghold. 

The final act of The Lighthouse showcases a seismic shift in power dynamics. When Ephraim gets relieved from his duties, he gets on his knees — continuing to subordinate himself, albeit more directly — and begs Thomas to let him see the lantern. Thomas refuses gleefully, reinforcing the roles they’ve played thus far by continuing to belittle him and his manhood. “I always win because yer less a man than I — and them’s the rules of nature,” he says.

It’s at this point where something clicks in Ephraim. The only way he can get what he wants is to out-man Thomas. Violence is a common theme in The Lighthouse, often paired with drunken humor and glimmers of intimacy. But violence is also an important factor in understanding the construction of masculinity: the easiest and most effective way to assert dominance over your fellow man is to beat the living shit out of him.

Thomas may become Ephraim’s subordinate by the film’s end — but ultimately, it’s the mighty sea who gets the last laugh.

While Rob Grant’s horror-comedy Harpoon is set in the modern era, it harkens on similar ideologies about violence and masculinity at odds with the sea.

Harpoon follows Jonah (Munroe Chambers), a nice guy who thinks the world is against him, his wealthy and aggression-prone best friend Richie (Christopher M. Gray), and Richie’s maternal, emotional labor-giving girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra), as they embark on a boat trip gone horribly wrong.

Right off the bat, the film introduces the audience to Richie’s rage with a comically absurd amount of violence towards Jonah, thinking he slept with Sasha and ruined their long term friendship. Once Jonah can pick himself off the floor, he and Sasha deny the allegation, claiming that the cryptic text messages Richie found were in reference to his birthday gift: a harpoon. 

The three try to heal their wounds by going out on Richie’s boat for a day trip to try out the harpoon. But the affair quickly reveals itself to have been true all along, and it turns out there are much more sinister secrets hiding just below the surface. As those secrets start to unfurl, they find themselves stranded without food, water, or a way to get back home. Most damning of all, they possess a brutal weapon in the company of people they can no longer trust.

The longstanding aggression between Jonah and Richie is inherently tied to masculinity. They claim “Even Steven” when one wants to get even with the other, often in the form of physical violence or shame. But the sense of competition between them is heightened with the addition of Sasha as something to fight over – something to win. 

After finding a bottle of liquor, Richie uses it as a way to get more information about the affair. He doesn’t really care about Sasha’s betrayal, instead, he wants to know if Jonah was any good. Richie wants confirmation that he’s better in bed so that he can have another thing to wield over Jonah.

Conversely, Jonah sees that confirmation as inherently unfair against him. “I’m at a disadvantage,” he says. “He knows all your stuff!”

Outside of this lovers’ quarrel is the film’s omniscient narrator (Brett Gelman), who intersplices maritime lore and legend with the crew’s misfortunes, along with black-and-white 1:19:1 vignette that mirrors the filmmaking style of The Lighthouse.

The narrator points out the many things they’ve done wrong in the eyes of sailors. For one, they depart on a Friday, which is considered unlucky as it signals the crucifixion of Jesus. “No old-time tar worth his salt would have dreamed of setting sail on a Friday,” Jeans writes. “To do so would have been to invite disaster of one sort or another.”

Furthermore, Richie first steps on the boat with his left foot. They toss a statue of an albatross overboard to avoid sinking. Sasha’s red hair is a bad omen (as is the name Jonah, another biblical superstition). And, they kill a seabird to drink its blood.

Similarly to The Lighthouse, the characters in Harpoon have to usurp power from one another in order to survive, but it becomes clear that their souls may already be too tainted to ever be saved.

Ultimately, power and violence rule the relationships between the protagonists of The Lighthouse and Harpoon, but it’s the broken laws of the sea that amplify their collective descent into madness. Isolation, testosterone-induced aggression, and spitting in the face of mighty legend can be a recipe for disaster.

“The truth will find you in the end and you’ll get what you deserve,” says Harpoon’s narrator. It’s an apt characterization of both films, whose characters — even after breaking the seemingly oppressive cycles of dominance and subordination — are forced to pay the price for their actions at the unrelenting whims of the sea.

 

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Cody Corrall

Multimedia journalist and film critic based in Chicago, Illinois.

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