The hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
Two men, Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, must endure a month of working together in a lighthouse. Wake forces Winslow to do the grunt work while Wake handles the light at the top, which he sits next to in the nude. Winslow grows more and more curious as to what Wake sees up there.
Winslow is annoyed by a half-blind seagull throughout his time there, culminating in him bashing it against a rock. This comes after Wake told him killing seagulls is bad luck. Winslow starts to experience bizarre hallucinations, including one of a mermaid. He and Wake spend most of their time drinking and driving each other mad. Winslow even admits that his name is really Thomas Howard and that the real Ephraim Winslow was a man he killed.
As a powerful storm rages on the island, the men find themselves with no way of getting off. Winslow finally attacks Wake and takes his keys to go to the top of the lighthouse, but Wake almost overpowers and kills him until Winslow gains the upper hand and puts an axe in Wake’s head. Winslow goes to the top of the lighthouse and sees something that makes him laugh madly but causes him to fall down the stairs. When he wakes up, he finds that seagulls are eating his insides.
In the late 19th century, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is sent on a boat to serve a contract job as a wickie for four weeks on an isolated island off the coast of New England, under the supervision of an irritable elderly man named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). On the first day of the job, Winslow notices a hole in his cot. As he digs into it, he finds a small scrimshaw of a mermaid and stuffs it in his jacket. Winslow observes Wake going up to the lighthouse’s lantern room at night and stripping naked. Winslow begins experiencing visions and dreams of tentacles in the lighthouse, tree stumps floating in the water, and distant images of a mermaid.
Over the course of his stay, Wake demands Winslow allocate to the more taxing jobs—refueling the light, carrying heavy kerosene containers, and disposing of the two men’s chamber pots. As the weeks progress, Winslow repeatedly encounters a one-eyed seagull. Wake warns Winslow that it is bad luck to kill a seagull, as he is superstitious that the animals are reincarnated sailors. The weeks continue, and Winslow frequently masturbates to the figurine of the mermaid and continues to see Wake naked. One night at dinner, the two discuss Wake’s previous second wickie, who Wake says died shortly after losing his sanity. Winslow reveals that he used to work in Canada as a timberman, but decided to change professions.
The day before Winslow is slated to leave, he notices the water pump is releasing bloody water and investigates. He opens the cistern to see a dead seagull floating inside. The one-eyed seagull flies down and attacks Winslow, who grabs it and beats it to death against the cistern. That afternoon, the winds dramatically change direction. That night, a storm hits the island and the two men get drunk. The next morning, the ferry does not arrive and Winslow sees a body washed up on the shore. Winslow approaches the naked body and realizes that it is a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman). He runs back into the cottage to find Wake stating that the rations were impacted by the storm. They dig up a crate said to contain extra rations, but it only contains more alcohol.
More nights progress and the storm continues, and the two men grow closer while remaining adversarial. Winslow unsuccessfully tries to steal the key to the lantern room from a sleeping Wake. He also has visions of a lobster trap containing the severed, half-blinded head of Wake’s previous wickie. One night, Winslow tells Wake that his real name is Thomas Howard and that he assumed the identity of Ephraim Winslow, a timberman who died in an accident Howard failed to stop. Wake accuses Howard of “spilling his beans” and Howard tries to leave. He attempts to escape on a lifeboat, but Wake destroys it with an axe. Wake chases Howard into the cottage, but inside, Wake claims that it was Howard who attacked him. With no alcohol left, the two begin mixing spirits out of kerosene and the storm becomes so powerful that waves crash through the windows of the cottage.
The next morning, Howard finds Wake’s log, recording his infractions and recommending severance without pay. Wake chides Howard for his work performance until Howard attacks him. While seeing visions of the mermaid, Wake as a sea monster, and the real Winslow, Howard beats Wake into submission. Howard ties Wake in a rope leash and buries him alive in the ration pit. Howard takes the keys and prepares to go up to the lantern room, but Wake appears and hits him in the shoulder with the axe. Howard disarms and kills Wake before ascending the lighthouse. He approaches the Fresnel lens, and it stops and opens up to him. Howard gazes into the mirrored interior in ecstasy and lets out a distorted scream as the light brightens, before falling down the lighthouse steps. Howard is then seen lying naked on the rocks, missing an eye, as several seagulls peck at his innards.
The film opens as lighthouse worker Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is sailing to the island with his new wickie, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). The two get settled into their quarters as they prepare for four weeks of work. Wake has been working there for ages and has gone through other lighthouse keepers before meeting Winslow. In his bed, Winslow finds a hole where he pulls out a mermaid figurine, which he keeps.
During dinner, Wake offers Winslow some alcohol, but he declines it. Winslow eventually gives in and coughs when he drinks. He also asks Wake about going up to the light, but Wake says that is only his responsibility. Later that night, Wake goes up to the top of the lighthouse in the nude and sits before the light. Winslow walks outside near the ocean, where he seems to be drawn to something in the water. The rocks part ominously as Winslow walks in deeper before he sees a body in there. Winslow appears to sink into the water where he sees an image of a mermaid accompanied by a high-pitched sound.
Winslow is woken by Wake in his room to proceed with the day’s work. Wake has Winslow perform the more backbreaking and daunting jobs, like refueling the lantern, carrying heavy containers, and dumping out their wastes, all while Wake tends to his side of the lighthouse. During his day, Winslow is bothered by a seagull. This carries on for a while. Winslow brings it up over dinner, and Wake warns him to never kill a seagull, as they carry the souls of departed sailors, and as such, it would be bad luck to kill them. He even smacks Winslow to prove his point when it’s suggested again.
Winslow takes the mermaid figure and masturbates to it. He also continues to notice Wake going up to the light, making Winslow more and more curious as to what it could be.
Wake forces Winslow to scrub the floors harder when he is unimpressed with his job. On another occasion, Wake accidentally drops Winslow as he is painting down the sides of the lighthouse. Winslow wakes up to find the same half-blind seagull near him, as if it has been taunting him. Eventually, Winslow demands to Wake that he start calling him by his first name instead of “dog”, as he has been referring to him derisively. Winslow talks about his old job as a timberman, while Wake mentions his last wickie claimed to have seen and heard things like mermaids and sirens.
More time passes on, and everything appears to be routine as Winslow continues the hard chores and retreats to masturbate, while later noticing Wake rising nude toward the light. One afternoon, Winslow encounters the seagull, who pecks at him. In a fit of rage, Winslow grabs the bird and violently smashes it against the rock.
The winds begin to change just before their time on the island is up, and Wake tells Winslow that he suspects a fierce storm is on the horizon, so he suggests that the two of them drink until the ferry comes for them. The two men board up the windows and get very drunk. Winslow asks about going up to the light, but it leads to an argument between the two.
The next day, a hungover Winslow goes about his work when the ferry doesn’t seem to show up. In one instance of bad luck, his dumping of the chamber pots leads all of the mess to fly back onto him. The rain then begins to come down hard, and Winslow later finds what appears to be a young woman (Valeriia Karaman) washed up on the shore. He inspects her body and sees that she appears to be a mermaid. She wakes up and lets out the siren screech.
The winds and rains grow heavier overnight. Wake indicates that help isn’t coming anytime soon. They go out in the rain to dig up “rations”, which is just more booze. The men get blind drunk once more, and Winslow grows more and more annoyed with Wake until he snaps and insults his cooking. Wake is enraged to the point of calling out to Neptune and cursing Winslow.
Winslow makes an attempt to take Wake’s keys to go up to the light, but it fails. He later masturbates to the figure again while imagining the mermaid he thought he saw, also seeing other bizarre images (including him pulling up the head of Wake’s last wickie in a basket from the water) before breaking the figure. Winslow later drinks merrily with Wake, singing shanties and dancing until they come down. Winslow then lets out his secret. His name is really Thomas Howard, and Ephraim Winslow is the name of another logger he bludgeoned to death. Winslow stole his identity and started a new life. Wake just ominously asks, “Why’d ya spill yer beans?”
Tensions rise even higher when Winslow tries to take a lifeboat out and it gets destroyed by Wake with an axe. He chases Winslow inside. The two argue more and more until Wake tries to manipulate Winslow and make him think he is the one chasing him and running around, while also mentioning what he did to the real Winslow, as well as his killing of the gull. It is also noted that neither of them even know how long they have been there on the rock. The two once again drink all night until the storm outside grows so strong that it sends water crashing through the window.
In the morning, Wake and Winslow have one more argument in which Winslow lets loose on all his rage toward Wake, with Wake also provoking him by calling him a dog. The two then fight until Winslow starts beating Wake’s face while appearing to be wrapped in tentacles. Winslow then puts a leash on Wake and forces him to act like a dog. He takes him outside and makes him lie in a grave until Winslow covers him in dirt. Winslow then swipes the keys off of Wake. As he makes his way to the top of the lighthouse, Wake rushes in with the axe and chops into Winslow’s shoulder. He overpowers Wake and takes the axe, swinging it down on his head. He takes the keys and makes his way up to the top of the lighthouse. Winslow looks into the light and sticks his hand inside. He starts to appear ghoulish and is laughing madly until he suddenly falls backwards and tumbles down the stairs.
Winslow wakes up outside on the rocks, with seagulls pecking at his insides while he is unable to move or react.