freelance writer, editor, journalist, author
[This review of the movie The Witch (2016) was originally published in February 2016 at The Wild Hunt. It does contain some spoilers.]
The Witch is an unsettling and cinematically-beautiful film that challenges its viewers through its themes and multilayered construction. But it is not at all what you might expect.
Written and directed by Robert Eggers, The Witch is the latest film to capitalize on the public’s continued obsession with witch stories and, even more specifically, the Salem mythos. Subtitled “A New England Folk Tale,” the title alone sets a definitive tone for an American audience before a single ticket is purchased and the lights go down in the theater. The legendary connection between witches and New England is woven into the very fabric of the American story, captivating the imagination and intriguing the mind. We know the drill, so to speak.
However, The Witch is set in 1630, decades before the infamous Salem witch trials, but it retains the same ethos. Because we, as American viewers, have legacy with the story, we enter this one with a certain knowing. Religious faith, defined by Christianity, will be challenged. Someone, most likely a young woman, is going to be accused of witchcraft and, as with the most recent Salem retellings, magic is actually “afoot.”
This is how Eggers’ film works. He uses well-known, culturally and religiously-based tropes as well as very familiar folkloric iconography to build his world. A family leaves its community due to religious differences and finds itself living alone in a field at the edge of a dark forest, a place typically associated with mystery, evil and magic. Throughout the film, Eggers punctuates the narrative with images of this woodland area, and he lingers within these shots as if to contemplate what is actually going on within its darkness. He conjures folkloric iconography to enrich his tale, including visual or spoken references to Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood and Baba Yaga, wolves, apples and woodland huts. Additionally, to play into the growing fear, Eggers throws in icons long associated in the western world with satanic witchcraft as defined by Catholicism, such as goats, hares, and crows.
But Eggers doesn’t simply dive into a fantasy-based horror film pitting “man against the wood.” This is not Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). The Witch is an historically-based, fiction tale complete with “thine” and “thou” and other such speak. While he employs the fairy tale trope of the forbidden forest and all that it implies, Eggers weaves a 17th-century morality tale, in which extreme religious piety slowly strangles a family, figuratively speaking. In that way, the entire film thematically becomes an exercise in exploring the limits of human control; of self, of others and of the world. The film pits the extremes of the uncontrolled, or the wild, against the extremes of the controlled, or religious fanaticism.
The Witch opens with a close-up of Thomasin, a teenage girl and the oldest child in the family (Anya Taylor-Joy), and it remains on her face as the voice of her father William (Ralph Ineson) explains how they can no longer live in the Puritan community due to religious differences. From the start, the film sets up a patriarchal family structure, led by a self-confident father with a deep, booming voice. The film then proceeds onward as the family makes its way into unexplored territory to set up a homestead and attempt to survive alone.
After baby Samuel disappears into the woods, the family structure begins to break down. As control slowly erodes, parents William and Katherine (Kate Dickie) cling desperately to their Christian faith. Their answer is always to pray harder and to pray more; to confess and to be pious. But that fails them personally, just as it fails the family as a whole. William’s own frustration is expressed by his obsessive need to chop wood, a small symbol of what is consuming his family. As his daughter remarks, he can’t farm and he can’t hunt – two other ways of taming the wild. So he chops wood and prays; this is eventually where he meets his end.
Unlike many modern horror films, Eggers doesn’t rush through telling of his story, nor does he complicate the narrative. The Witch maintains an effective stillness that values the simplicity of visual tension over loud, graphically-explicit content as typically found in modern films. Eggers moves along very slowly and precisely, lingering within shots and cutting to black at poignant moments. The mood is only disrupted by a few “jump” moments and a limited amount of gore, violence and nudity. The music, or lack thereof, and the gray cinematography contribute to the film’s eerie environment, paralleling both the extremes of religious piety and the fear of what is lurking in the wood.
The folklore references, which are known to the viewer, are also known to the family members, and that is partly what entraps and encircles them either by their fear or by their reality. This is where the film gets complicated and perhaps loses its strength to some degree. Is the presented fantasy folklore a product of the family’s religious beliefs or is it real? In other words, is there really a witch in the woods?
Plot-wise, the answer is yes. There is a witch in the woods. Near the beginning, the Baba Yaga figure is shown without any juxtaposition, visually or otherwise, to a family member’s experience. This suggests that she is real. However, this is only time that happens. All other visuals of magic or witches are directly linked to a family member’s process in some way, which leaves the viewer questioning whether the presented magic is simply a product of fear and desire as characters lose their self control.
For example, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the adolescent son, is seduced by a witch disguised as a beautiful maiden. The mother is lured into chaos by images of her dead sons. The disrespectful and creepy Hansel and Gretel-like twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), are said to be under the control of the family billy goat named Black Phillip. Are these characters suffering from delusions after being overtaken by the pain of loss, the boredom of social isolation and the fear of desire? In the end, the answer doesn’t matter. Whether or not the witch and the magic are real or simply products of the fanatic mind is irrelevant, because ultimately the wild wins.
This brings us back to Thomasin, the teenage girl, who is the film’s protagonist. In most Salem narratives and in most fantasy witch tales, there is a prominent adolescent girl who has reached the point of maturity. That character is typically at the center of the majority of American witch movies; not every one but most. Eggers’ film is no different. As noted by her mother, Thomasin has reached this point of womanhood. However, Eggers does something radically different with Thomasin’s story. There is no cinematic male gaze, as suggested by the promotional imagery and posters. The film’s focus does not fall on Thomasin’s sexuality but rather on her place within an unstable social setting.
In more traditional Salem-based or satanic witch films, a young woman’s sexuality, expression of or protection of, becomes paramount. She must be saved from a symbolic defiling or, if she willingly becomes wild, she must be brought back and reincorporated into proper society or otherwise killed. In addition, traditionally speaking, the teenage girl in the western fairy tale must struggle against an angry mother as part of her journey toward womanhood. In the end, the wild is vanquished and society upheld by a man’s heroics. In one way or another, we are returned to a status quo, purging the bad and upholding the good.
However, in Eggers’ film, Thomasin is the only character who “holds it together” as the family society erodes. She does what she is told, washing clothes, caring for and comforting her siblings, working with the goats, remembering her prayers and loving her parents. She even tries desperately to soothe her angry mother. Thomasin is not at all seduced by the wild, like the others. Even when she accused of witchcraft by the twins and even jokes about it, the label does not stick. She consistently fails to uphold her expected role as the classic adolescent female horror victim.
In the end, it is Thomasin who survives by finally giving into the wild and becoming a witch. The opening scene of her face jailed by camera’s close-up as her father’s voice booms over her is juxtaposed beautifully by the final image her naked body floating in the forest, near the tree tops, with sounds of laughter and chanting. She is free. The young woman survives by rewilding herself, and the film cuts to black.
While some viewers may view this dark ending as simply promoting Satanism or Witchcraft, that is far too simple of a reading. The film works on an allegorical level in various ways, exploring humanity’s extreme and failed attempts to control nature – that of self and that of the world. More specifically, it speaks to a society facing environmental collapse at its own hands and to women attempting to toss off the shackles of the constructed patriarchy in order to embrace true female agency. There is also cautionary tale embedded in the film, one that is not at all new. Nature will win.
However, with all that said, there is one caveat here. To be free and embrace the wild, Thomasin must sign Satan’s book. Modern Witches may find discomfort with the film’s very stereotypical depiction of Witchcraft as defined within Christian terms. This point also begs the question of whether Thomasin is actually free at all. Did she leave one patriarchy just to join another?
Regardless, taking the film as a pure allegory and looking at it in terms of the canon of Hollywood witch films, Eggers does make a radical turn. He allows his heroine Thomasin to embrace a radical lifestyle that is contrary to everything she was taught, religiously and socially, and allows her to remain in that space without question. This detail alone is what makes the film unsettling even after the lights go up in the theater. What the characters know and believe as right, becomes wrong and is destroyed. And, what is believed to be wrong is eventually embraced.
The Witch is an interesting exercise in thematic storytelling encapsulated in beautiful imagery. However, it will disappoint those viewers looking for a more typical modern horror film. While Eggers does use some common horror elements, the film is not scary or frightening in the expected sense. The horror of this film is in the disturbing extremes; not in sensationalized violence or gore. It is in the parents’ desperate attempts to maintain control through faith (e.g., blood letting) as well as in the chaos of the wild world as it takes over (e.g., death of animals). The film moves slowly by modern standards and spends much of its time in contemplation and observance, which ultimately is the position of the protagonist Thomasin.
Filmed in northern Ontario, The Witch earned critical acclaim at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and Eggers won the festival’s directing award in the U.S. Dramatic category. The film also won the Sutherland Prize for Best Debut Feature in London. Currently, Eggers is working on a fim called “The Knight: a medieval epic.” And, will be working on a “reimagining of F.W. Murnau’s classic film, Nosferatu.”
The Witch is Eggers’ debut film. It runs for 92 minutes and is now playing widely in cinemas across the country.