Why Does Robert Eggers Use Ambiguity in "The Witch" and "The Lighthouse"?

Only three films have been released by Robert Eggers, yet his personal brand is as strong as it has ever been. There is a well-established image of a "Robert Eggers movie" thanks to films like The Witch and The Lighthouse, released in 2015 and 2019, respectively: evocative period pieces steeped in legend and brought to life via an obsession with authenticity. Fans across many genres have fallen in love with his meticulous vision and determination to do things the hard way. A sign of how much people were anticipating Eggers' next film, The Northman, is that it would be an action-packed historical epic rather than a horror film.

However, despite the fact that both The Witch and The Lighthouse are clearly Eggers, they are quite distinct. The Lighthouse is black-and-white, whereas The Witch is color. Unlike The Lighthouse, which only has two people, The Witch is centered on a young, female protagonist (plus an amorous, possibly nonexistent mermaid.) Both The Witch and The Lighthouse are dark comedies, but The Lighthouse is an unhinged and hilarious one with plenty of unexpected slapstick. When it comes to dealing with uncertainty, they adopt two quite different tacks.

Horror filmmakers, in particular, use ambiguity as a powerful tool in their toolbox. Short-term and long-term tension may be created through ambiguity; it can leave tempting breadcrumbs for the viewer, and it can conclude the movie on a haunting note. ambiguity Uncertainty may be a powerful tool when used well, but when used incorrectly, it can be jarring and detract from an audience's enjoyment of a film. It's no wonder, however, that Eggers' first two films make masterful use of ambiguity. This is remarkable since his two methods for dealing with uncertainty both indicate something about Eggers' approach to folklore that is worth noting.

Eggers' study into the lives of Puritan colonists, in particular the Salem witch trials, served as inspiration for The Witch. It's important to keep in mind that the Puritans were not only fearful of the supernatural at the time of the witch trials; they actually believed in the threat that witches posed. Witches weren't just mythological creatures to them; they represented a real danger to their way of life. Witches are never questioned; only whether or not these ladies were witches is. To the Puritans, folklore was the actual world, thus there was no difference between the two concepts.

In The Witch, the central family is dealing with this. Puritan William (Ralph Ineson) exiled them because of his ornery disposition, but they've already established themselves as a very religious and superstitious family. While they first blame a wolf for the disappearance of their son, Samuel, when odd events continue to occur, they have little problem thinking that evil powers are at work. No doubt is thrown on them by Eggers, who presents everything at face value, from a pig breastfeeding blood to Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) floating into the night air. Despite the fact that the video may be interpreted as a prolonged psychotic episode, there is significantly more evidence to indicate the existence of the supernatural.

It's not as simple as it seems in The Lighthouse. For starters, unlike the Witch family, the individuals in this story don't all believe in the supernatural. In contrast to Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is an ancient sea dog with superstitions to match. When Winslow defies Wake's warning not to kill a bird, he is smacked in the face by Wake. His dislike of "old wives' stories" causes conflict between him and his partner, Wake. It's not apparent which of the two is "correct," though, assuming one of them is.

The Lighthouse stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.
In truth, hardly much in The Lighthouse is made crystal plain. Did the seagull Winslow shot in a moment of wrath spell their doom? In what way does Winslow see the relevance of scrimshaw? Is it truly the "enchantment in the light" that's driving them both insane here? Is it a combination of isolation and alcohol-induced insanity, or is there something else going on? Were they both crazy from the start? In the end, Wake posits that Winslow's lengthy hallucination in the Canadian woods may be the cause of this whole mess. Audiences may consider a wide range of compelling hypotheses and explanations, but there is no definitive correct solution.

However, in both The Witch and The Lighthouse, "the proper solution" is of secondary importance. Even if the narrative had a "mundane" explanation, it would be just as terrifying as if it were truly magical. The Puritan family believes in witches; Wake believes in Neptune and a magical lighthouse; Winslow doesn't believe in anything, at least not at the beginning. But regardless of whether or not they believe in the supernatural, their destiny remain the same. Their belief in witches is like an umbrella in a hurricane: they all perish, save for Thomasin who becomes a witch and joins the coven. Arcane nautical doctrine is the cause of Thomas Wake being hacked to death, and his comrade Winslow is lured into the frenzy into a death worse than death.

Because of this, the folklore may or may not be genuine in the movie's reality, but it doesn't have to be true for it to be deadly, which is how Eggers uses ambiguity so well. According to his films, folklore portrays an ancient and inexorable power that predates mankind itself. You can't control everything, and this image serves as a reminder of how little and weak you are in the grand scheme of things — even now.