The Thirst is Real: Desire and Demand in The Lighthouse
The best line in The Lighthouse is, hands down, “If I had a steak...I would fuck it.”
You can’t argue with that. Can’t compete. Nothing else measures up to the sheer absurdity and understanding you achieve when you write a line like, “If I had a steak, I would fuck it.”
This is also the line, in my opinion, that catalyzes the sheer desperation of The Lighthouse. The ambitions of the entire film are distilled down to one shocking, surreal expression that marks the turning point of the film.
One of the great strengths of The Lighthouse is that it lays out all of the main objects of desire - communication, knowledge, sex, and alcohol - within the first ten minutes of the movie. When the two men argue about who gets to keep the light, they refuse to speak in the same language. Young gets a full view of Old’s ass as he humps the bed, and they have a clear difference of opinion on the drinks they have over dinner. Each of the main sources of desire, and therefore, the source of conflict in the film, are expressed almost immediately, and remain prevalent throughout the entire narrative. The film is constantly exploring what it means to thirst, but it never gives in to it. There’s always more to want, and the men are never satisfied.
There is not only desire in The Lighthouse, but an implicit demand. At every point in the movie, Young demands things: more food, more drink, more money, more from life. The movie itself demands that its characters make sacrifices in order to exist in the frame. The narrative demands them to give themselves up to their base natures, it demands violence and anger, it demands action and blood. The narrative of The Lighthouse is tied, through both the technical specifications of the movie and the narrative itself, to desire, and the character’s expressions of that desire.
It is in human nature to thirst; it speaks to the base nature of humans to want more and more and more. There’s always something - always more to take or have. It’s inescapable to not have everything. It can be as basic as air, or water, or even time - another breath, another dance, another night. The desire inherent in The Lighthouse is expansive because of how basic the wants are, but the thirst is also exactly focused. There is only so far Young and Old can go, there is only so much that you can do or say or eat while stranded on an island with limited to no contact with the rest of the world.
Desire in The Lighthouse is primal and reflexive. The characters don’t think about what they want; they simply want it. The desires for things like knowledge, sex, and alcohol are not analyzed or questioned, they are basic and inherent to the characters themselves. The two men do not feed each other, but they pile on, amplifying the needs of each other, refusing and giving in to desire in equal measure. At many points in the movie, the two men cannot help but want, desire, thirst. The compulsion is inherent, built into the film itself.
It’s this undercurrent of ambition and frustration that expands to encompass the entire film, like the way that a boat, beating against the waves, fails to make it past the break. These frustrations of thwarted ambitions are the driving force of the plot, which are then further emphasized by the technical features of the film. Desire is contained by a small aspect ratio and a black and white color palette, limiting us, setting us up to experience what comes before desire: the lack.
Technically speaking, thirst is black and white. It’s binary. Either it’s there or it’s not. To produce a film with a limited color palette gives the viewer more room to explore, within the text, the meaning of its absence. Why was Raging Bull in black and white? Why did Wizard of Oz change colors? What do we learn when we see a narrative piece of media that evokes a lack, implicitly, in its very creation?
One reason for this, is that color implies and allows an expansion of the world in which color exists. Color allows for breathing room: for new experiences and interpretations. What does blue mean in Moonlight? Why is Carrie wearing pink to prom? Scratch that. Roll tape. Comparing shades of gray is a lesson in futility. There is light and there is dark. The in-between shades of gray make up the entire film, and trying to interpret them further is an exercise in futility. It’s not hard to get meaning out of black and white film. To have this starkness in film allows focus. Much like Hitchcock’s decision to film stories like Psycho and Notorious in black and white, The Lighthouse is a compact, desperately grasping thriller, focused on the story, eschewing the symbology of color and of our own conceptions of meaning. We don’t know if red is angry or green is kind; instead, all of the colors are hard. It’s all limited and restricted, carefully crafted to create a desire in the audience to find meaning elsewhere.
Communication is the first example of compulsive desire, and it remains prevalent throughout the length of the film. The two men are not good at speaking to each other. Their language is stilted, their meanings are obfuscated within symbology, and the differences between them make it impossible for them to speak to each other with any sort of understanding. Instead of an exchange, there is a pile. The lack of words creates a desire. They need to speak to each other; there is simply nobody else who they can speak to. The larger-than-life symbols in the film: the lighthouse itself, the siren, the seagull, none of these things speak when addressed. Only Young and Old respond.
The desire for communication exists, and the outpouring of desire that they bring to bear at the table, and in between their beds never brings relief. They speak but they don’t listen. They demand and desire and nobody can offer relief. They don’t know how to respond to each other, and there’s a point at the beginning of the script where Young fumbles over multisyllabic words. Old, as well, refuses to accept “yes,” and instead demands that Young say “Aye” as agreement. They speak the same language, but they don’t understand what each other is saying.
Sex is another source of desire, from both Young and Old. Young from the beginning of the film is drawn to physical expressions of his thirst and frustrations. He steals the mermaid statue, masturbates to it, and when a mermaid washes up on shore, he doesn’t hesitate to fuck her. He’s also the one who watches Old through the hole in the ceiling, instigates the fights with him, and holds him after they dance. Young is the one who acts on his carnal, base desires, instigating the same from Old.
They feed off of each other, encouraging each other to greater heights of thirst and demand. There is a moment when they are drunk and dancing that the two men look at each other, and the entire theater held its collective breath because we were all so sure that they were going to kiss. The build up was there. The thirst was real, and we could all see what was going on. This carnal desire eventually escalates into an all-out brawl, but the desire for human connection, for another kind of communication, is still evident even in moments of intense lust.
The two men did not kiss, mostly because Hollywood is still homophobic, and queer pain and repression is always going to be prioritized over queer relief. That’s an essay for another time, but this is a movie that has consistently prioritized desire, but rarely fulfills it. Why would this be different?
The last moment of catalyzed desire is literal thirst. Throughout the movie both water and alcohol trade off scarcity. Water is contaminated, the rum runs out, the fuel becomes the only source of alcohol as the two men descend into depression and go mad waiting for the boat to the mainland that seemingly will never come. Alcohol is the most tangible expression of desire, as Young and Old can always tell when they are lacking for a drink.
Both of these things - sex and alcohol - provide an escape. When the boat meant to take them home doesn’t materialize, sex and alcohol give them a way to distract themselves. The terror of being on the island hasn’t set in yet, and Young and Old lose themselves to drink. They revel in the ecstasy of destruction and release, in the letting go. The film, of course, can’t let this last for too long, and when the lack comes, it comes fast and hard, and devastates the two men, pushing them to the brink of their sanity like a Lovecraftian monster, breaking them for thirst.
It’s a punishment. Thirst too much, want too much, and you will be laid low. Human nature is no match for mother nature, and the sheer audacity of Young and Old to think that they could face the forces at work on the island could only lead to retribution. Ambition is curbed, addiction is drawn further and further along the line, and at the bitter end you have the finale, the climax, the death.
All of these things - communication, sex, alcohol - cumulate at the climax of the film, drawing on the thirst that has colored the entire narrative. Nothing is given to the characters, but everything is taken. The lighthouse itself takes the fuel, the sanity, the desire that these characters have and transforms it into something desperate and immediate. The lighthouse, the desire for knowledge and understanding, the carnal impulse to have a thing, to hold it, drives the characters into madness. In The Lighthouse the thirst is real, and it’s deadly.
Linda H. Codega
Linda is a twenty-something millennial living and working in the Hudson Valley who loves fandom, pop culture, sailing, tarot cards, and crying in movie theaters. If you want to listen to them talk about pop culture, the repeating cycles of media, and those stories that we can’t get out of our heads, you can listen to their podcast, Retronym, on iTunes.