Movie Review: “The Witch”

The October celebration continues with a film that blends supernatural horror with family tragedy to create an eerie, unsettling experience that’s not for the faint of heart.

NOTE: Because this film is a few years old, I’m going to be more lenient with spoilers here. I would recommend watching the film before reading this post.

There is, at least in the Western world, a strange yet undeniable fascination with witches. Probably because the word has meant so many things to different factions of society across history. We’re all familiar with the witch as a Halloween monster, the cackling fiend that haunts children’s fairy tales. In a similar vein, there is also the witch as a demonic instigator of conflict, meddling with the lives of good Christian folk. This is the interpretation we most often see in medieval and early modern culture: think the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, or the stories propagated during the Salem witch trials. In more recent decades, the word has taken on a different and more positive connotation in some circles. It can mean a powerful and independent woman, or a woman unfairly cast out by society for speaking the truths that those in power don’t want people to hear. Look at the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, and then look at Wicked. You’ll see what I mean.

Today’s film, The Witch, encompasses a little bit of every definition. With the subtitle “A New-England Folktale,” it flaunts its role as a successor to the early modern stories and dramas about witchcraft. At the same time, however, it has a decidedly modern interpretation of the witch as a threat to society’s stability. The witch brings chaos with her, but her presence does not create cracks in the established structure. Instead, she highlights the cracks that were already there.

The Plot: In 17th-century New England, a Puritan family is banished from their village over the religious opinions of the patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson). William and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) go out into the wilderness with their five children and set up a small farm at the edge of an isolated forest. The eldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is having trouble adjusting to the change and longs for the days when her family was more prosperous. She might have a point: the family’s crops are failing, their buildings remain unfinished, and something just took the baby. Katherine’s sanity begins to unravel as she mourns the loss of her child, and the stress on the family is increased by both her behavior and the increasingly strange accidents that keep plauging them. The blame for these miseries eventually falls on Thomasin, who must clear her name and defend herself from the wrath of her own parents. Can the family find and defeat the mysterious witch of the woods before it’s too late? And what does Black Philip the goat have to do with all this? He’s just a goat…right?

Going from the overblown cheesiness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to this film is a contrast so sudden that it might cause whiplash. Make no mistake, this is an adult horror film. Not in that it’s overtly sexual and gory (although there is some of that), but in how unrelentingly eerie it is. The tone and outlook of the film are established within the first few minutes in a strong way. The wide, expansive shots of the forest are gloomy, earthy and overcast. Paired with a musical score of moody, buzzing strings and a wailing chorus, they create the impression of the family’s new home as someplace outside of reality, where the rules that govern and protect the normal world can’t touch them. It’s a bleak situation made more uncomfortable by the film’s attention to detail. Director and writer Robert Eggers puts a lot of emphasis on the barren, desperate conditions that the family lives in. They work themselves weary with little to no payoff, they live in a cramped house with no privacy, and they lack the skills they need to farm and hunt. Each day is a struggle for survival.

The witch lifestyle is no kinder, as we see in a wordless sequence where the witch of the woods absconds with the family’s infant. She’s not glamorous or alluring: she’s a naked old woman living in a filthy cave, doing horrific and demeaning acts for the benefit of her unseen master. As we see her kill the baby and mash his guts into paste, we are hit with a sobering realization of what kind of movie we’re in for. This is a world of darkness and suffering where no one is really good or sympathetic.

What separates The Witch from the early modern stories that inspired it is the fallibility of its protagonists. William in particular is a character with some serious flaws: he is arrogant, self-righteous, emotionally stunted, always needing to be seen as the wise patriarch. He can’t survive outside of the village, and he knows it, but he would rather put his family at risk than have his pride wounded. He is apathetic toward the conflicts within his family and even exacerbates them by allowing his children to take the blame for mistakes that were his fault. He doesn’t really know how to show grief for his lost child, nor how to react when other characters talk to him about their own grief. There’s a really great scene where Katherine pours her heart out to him about everything she’s been feeling, how it’s eating her up inside and pushing her farther away from God, and he has no idea what to say in response. The only emotion he shows a lot is anger, which he does whenever someone calls him out on his weakness. Katherine is also a piece of work, albeit a more tragic one. She spends the whole movie consumed in mourning for her baby, unable to see that her other children need her as well. Once the tragedies start piling up, she needs an outlet for her anger at the world, something — or someone — tangible that she can blame. And she settles on Thomasin.

This is where we start getting into an exploration of the “witch as unfairly blamed outcast” concept. When something goes wrong for a group of people, the group will look outside itself for a source that they can assign guilt to. It’s the “self vs. other” or “us vs. them” mentality, and we see it all the time. The witch as a scapegoat is a particularly old and common variation on this. Your family members fall ill? Your crops and livestock die? Blame a witch! It doubles as a convenient way of turning the community against an individual that you have a grudge against or simply don’t like. That’s what we see going on in this story. The family is unable to acknowledge the fact that they got themselves into this situation, so they seek out an enemy to place the blame on. Thomasin fits the bill because of what she says and does to her family. She was the last person to see the baby alive, which instantly makes her suspicious in her mother’s eyes. She also knows that William is wrong to put his pride above his family, and she tells him that to his face. The result? Her own parents are telling her she’s made a deal with the Devil and are bent on killing her. The movie does a great job of showing where false accusations like this can come from and why they are made. Even though there is a supernatural force at work here, Eggers makes the smart choice of giving each tragedy a potential mundane explanation. Maybe a wolf really did make off with the baby. Maybe the middle child really is deathly sick and not just bewitched. Sometimes bad things just happen. Eggers has gone on record as saying that one possible interpretation of the film’s events is that the family is being affected by ergotism. For those not in the know, that’s the same type of food poisoning that historians think might have been in play during the Salem witch trials. It can cause seizures, nausea, vomiting and psychosis. We’re shown that the family’s crops are damaged and rotting, so it’s absolutely possible. One of the film’s biggest strengths is how you can interpret what’s happening in such different ways. At least, up to a point.

Before I talk about the ending of The Witch, I want to go over some of its weaker points. It’s quite a slow film despite having a runtime of roughly 90 minutes, and that might turn off people who are used to horror films with more suspense and big scares. The characters’ antiquated dialogue is also a point of contention for many viewers, who have difficulty following the plot. I personally don’t have trouble with the dialogue, and I think it contributes to the atmosphere of the film, but I can understand why some people might not like it. What I do have a problem with is some of the acting. Thomasin and her parents are both really good and easily carry the film. The middle child, Caleb, is rather flat at times. The twins, Jonas and Mercy, are obnoxious as all hell. While they were definitely written to be unlikeable, the shrill and pouty performances of the child actors sends the characters into the territory of “I am now wishing bodily harm on a pair of toddlers.” Which I don’t think is quite the reaction Eggers was going for.

Now, the ending. Spoilers ahead.

The ending of the film is a point of contention for a lot of people. You either like it or you hate it. Some viewers accept it without question, and others feel that it harms the movie for being unambiguously supernatural in a movie that was otherwise open to interpretation. And that’s not even getting into the debate over whether it’s secretly a feminist statement or not. Here’s a quick rundown of what happens. Remember the goat, Black Philip? Yeah, he’s not a goat. He’s the Devil. And at the end of the film, when Thomasin is the only character left alive, she sells her soul to him and goes off into the forest as a newly minted witch.

I really don’t have a problem with the ending. I’m fine with it being supernatural because we’d already seen a bunch of supernatural stuff happening at that point. It makes sense going off what the audience has been shown so far. I don’t think it’s particularly feminist, and that Thomasin becoming a witch means she’s now better off because she’s free from the restrictions of Puritan society. As I mentioned earlier, the film takes pains to show us that the life of a witch isn’t desirable either. Rather, I think it’s a statement about the kinds of people who are associated with witchcraft (at least in early modern folklore) and what it means to accept the mantle of a witch.

The Devil targets Thomasin because she’s physically and mentally vulnerable. She’s alone in the wilderness, the last living member of her family, unable to provide for herself. She’s just had to kill Katherine in self-defense, a grave sin despite being necessary for her own survival. What’s more, she knows that her own mother died hating her. After an experience like that, why wouldn’t she take up Satan’s offer when he memorably asks “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

This ending reminds me of a Jacobean play I read in college called The Witch of Edmonton. The eponymous witch in that play is Elizabeth Sawyer, a woman who in real life was accused of witchcraft and executed. The play depicts her as a destitute old woman despised by the townspeople, who won’t even let her pick up sticks from their land. They beat her, mock her and falsely accuse her of witchcraft. So when the Devil shows up for real in the form of a black dog and offers her the chance to become a witch, Elizabeth figures she’s got nothing left to lose.

That’s how I interpreted Thomasin’s choice at the end. Becoming a witch wasn’t just the most viable option left to her, it was the only option left. She took it in order to survive and to deal with the despair and guilt over what had happened to her family. And that, I think, really gets to the core of what makes witches and witchcraft such an enduring concept. It’s about people who have been failed or wronged by society taking power for themselves as a means of survival, for good or for ill. And there’s something simultaneously frightening and relatable about that.

In conclusion, I definitely recommend The Witch. It’s not for everyone, but it’s well-made and legitimately spooky. Anyone looking for an adult horror film that’s slower paced, big on mood and light on jump scares won’t be disappointed.

Up next: I make a case in favor of one of the most divisive horror films of the past decade. Is it really all that scary? You bet…but not in the way you’d think. See you next time!

— Dana

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