The Witch

The Witchthewitch
Released: 2016
Director: Robert Eggers

The Witch has been receiving vast amounts of praise leading up to its release, and so it’s difficult to imagine that the film could possibly live up to its reputation. Even Stephen King, considered one of the premiere crafters of horror in our time stated that the film terrified him. It’s a tough act to follow up on. One thing I did know going into this film, however, was this: the less you know when you go to see the film, the better your experience will be. So I did just that, hoping that my expectations would be met.

I didn’t know what to think when going in; I didn’t consider that my expectations would be exceeded entirely.

The Witch deals with a Puritanical family living in the 1600s; they lead a relatively simple life, though one that is isolated due to their expulsion fro their community for differences in worship. While the family struggles, they hope to make ends meet with their crops, and eventually prosper, even in their solitary life. All of this seems to be undone with the sudden disappearance of their infant child, setting off a chain of fear and paranoia that seeks to destroy everything in its path.

It’s interesting to note that this film comes with the subtitle “A New England Folktale,” because it’s telling of the film’s content. This is a story that is deeply rooted in its cultural context, and the history of its setting. Of course, people associate old New England with tales of witches, witch hunts, and the deep paranoia of the time, and this story draws quite a lot from the lore of the time period. Beyond that, however, it also gives you a story of a family of immigrants, who are trying to make something of their lives in a new home – one that is not always kind to them. The immigrant story, as well as the religious piety so ingrained in our Puritan history, are deeply American themes, and this film explores them well.

Thomasin is the overall point of view character, and she is one of the most intriguing elements of the film. Being the eldest child, she has a greater understanding of the struggle her family is facing, but as a girl, she often feels powerless to do much of anything. We see her predicament set up with a subtle hand; the baby’s disappearance on her watch is the first thing that sets this into motion. From here on, her proximity to any given situation, combined with a lack of knowledge, arouses suspicion towards her. No matter how she pleads her innocence, she is faced with contempt and distrust by the only ones she can turn to, leaving her with no allies and no choices. The best she can hope for early in the film is to be sold off to another family, as a wife or a servant, due to her approaching womanhood. It is not until all of these external factors are stripped from her, both society and the pressure of her own family, that we finally see her have any agency of her own. She is not pressured into her actions in the final scenes, she seeks them of her own free will, and finally chooses her own fate, whatever the nature of it may be. As we see her in the final shot, stripped of her clothing, as well as her cultural expectations, there is a euphoria that is hard to ignore.

Each family member, except Thomasin, is shown to be wicked in their own way from the start. William is guilty of pride, which is why their family was faced with banishment and within the clutches of the witch to begin with. Over time, his incessant wood chopping begins to symbolize this staunch and prideful resilience – and in its own way, the collapse of everything he worked for is shown in his final moments, when the stacks of wood bury him. Caleb is lustful, even towards his own sister, and his choice to embrace that becomes his own undoing; this culminates in death amidst a fervor of religious ecstasy. Katherine becomes wrathful in her ever-growing grief over her children, and her inability to manage her grief, instead allowing it to fester into anger and violence, also brings her to her own end. The ones that even should seem the most innocent, the twins, are disrespectful to their parents, frequently lying, and of course, fraternizing with a false idol in Black Phillip. Even the infant was unbaptized, allowing for Thomasin to be the purest of the lot, and making her a much more satisfying fall from grace.

Katherine is an interesting character to keep in mind as well. While there were points where her character felt a little one-note, the constantly bereaved mother figure of the family, there were interesting twists to her that are worth looking at. While she appears to be severe and cold for much of the film, and so wrapped up with her role as a mother so as to seem void of anything else, the reasons for this are hinted at. When she confesses to William that she wants to be home, in England, we see a true unhappiness in her life in this new world, and we must wonder how much decision making power she really had in this change – especially seeing how her husband makes other decisions without her knowledge. While she is often antagonizing to Thomasin, it is perhaps partially due to being just as powerless as Thomasin herself is within this cultural landscape. When she is faced with the devil’s temptation and is implied she is transformed into a witch herself, we are shown that she could just as easily turn to wickedness in exchange for her desires and freedom – to the point of feeding a familiar her own blood.

There are several things to appreciate about the choices that this film makes in its approach. The lack of a community element to the fear of witches was a good decision; it allows for the film to stand apart from other stories of witch hunts, and avoid evoking the Salem Witch Trials. Instead, it goes for examining fear on a micro scale: we know how fear can destroy a community, but how can the same fear destroy a single family unit? This question is answered with disturbing clarity, that grief and strife can turn one against even the ones they love the most, and actions done with the best of intentions can have the worst effects.

The way the witch’s presence was used was also commendable. Firstly, the choice to reveal the existence of a witch within the first ten minutes of the film; this discredited any interpretation of the film as purely a play on paranoia early on, and allowed for the supernatural elements to seep through slowly. The introduction of the witch is truly brutal, her first scene showing her commit what is probably one of the most unthinkable acts for many people – but then her presence is scaled back and minimal, so as not to desensitize the viewer to her. The scene where Caleb stumbles upon her is chilling, and understated; even with just the look in the eyes of this woman, under the glamour she’s projecting, there is a palpable understanding of how dangerous she is. However, this witch is only part of the story – the true understanding of the titular witch and her identity does not become clear until the end.

Clearly, the movie has a lot of fantastic storytelling elements to it, but is it actually scary? I can say that this film had me feeling more uncomfortable than nearly any other film I’ve seen in recent memory. And not just the occasional discomfort – from very early on in the film, there is just a constant feeling of tension that is suspended throughout the entire film. It is relentless, and only becomes worse with each escalating incident. There are fewer traditional scares than you might expect, but that is a strength of its story: it does not need to startle you or show a lot explicitly to be unnerving. The things it does choose to show you are deliberate, and only enhance the fear and anxiety you are experiencing along with the characters. And when it does want to have bigger, more dramatic moments to draw out bigger scares, by god, it does not hold back.

Whether or not you interpret the ending as a positive one for Thomasin – is she liberated or imprisoned once more by her choice? – there is no arguing that it isn’t a powerful one. The Witch leaves the audience with a lot to think about in the existence of true evil, and the many forms it is capable of taking, even as it appears in those we love and trust.

Rating: 5 out of 5. Seriously, go see this movie!

Scariness level: Deeply disturbing, on more than one level. It might not be a sleep with the lights on kind of movie, but certainly one that has you questioning whether or not there’s any true good in the world.

Violence level: There’s no gore, per se, but there are a number of violent scenes that are disturbing by implication. The fate of the baby is probably the worst of the lot. Katherine nursing a familiar is also pretty brutal.

Bechdel Test: This one is a tough call. There are three named female characters (Thomasin, Katherine, and Mercy), and they do speak to each other. However, being such an insular story about one family, most of their conversations involve men, either implicitly or explicitly.

Mako Mori test: Yes. Thomasin is fighting a constant struggle against her circumstances, and her story is ultimately based in repression and freedom.

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Posted on February 29, 2016, in Films and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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