Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?
It’s a question posed in Robert Eggers’ brilliantly-crafted, disturbing horror film, The Witch, a query which draws allusions to the snake’s conversation with Eve in the Garden of Eden, and a timely question for the characters living in this New England nightmare. Set in the Puritan era of the early 1600s, The Witch centers on the experiences of an outcast family, excommunicated from their settlement due to some sort of theological dispute. The patriarch, William (Robert Ineson), has strong Calvinistic beliefs, speaking often of our human depravity and need for salvation from on high. He leads his wife, Katherine, and their five children out to the edge of a large wood to begin life anew. His tight-handed authoritarian system of spirituality sets the tone for the family system, an atmosphere of existential dread, self-deprecation, and lack of pleasure or grace.
Early in the film, the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is charged with looking after their baby brother. In a game of peekaboo, he suddenly vanishes, having been taken into the woods by the titular monster for a disturbing and bloody ritual. This disappearance begins a downward spiral as both physical and psychological tensions begin to stir within the family. The delicious life seems far away from this isolated outpost near the woods, where crops fail, relationships break down, and fear begins to take hold. While Katherine’s grief over her lost child drives her into resentment of Thomasin, William’s sin-obsessed spirituality begins to rub off on his eldest son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), while the younger twins, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson), begin playing a dangerous game with the nefarious dark goat on their farm, Black Phillip. (Note to self: never get naked around a goat that may or may not be the devil. Nothing good ever comes of it.)
Robert Eggers’ has crafted an unsettling, disturbing look at a unique era of American history. This story is a precursor to the Salem witch trials which would happen decades later. It’s akin to Haneke’s The White Ribbon in its exploration of the historical setting prior to a community’s drastic and immoral actions, showing us the contextual foundations behind such an era. We ask the question of witch trials or WWI, “why would they do such a thing?” These films explore the murmurs and stirrings leading up to the generation which would take the lead in these movements. In an end-credits title card, Eggers reveals that much of the dialogue is influenced by actual accounts from this Puritan era, which adds to the authenticity of it all–there are plenty of “thees” and “thous” in the dialogue, and many of William’s spiritual rants reminded me of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” both poetic and disquieting.
Yet for its authentic historical tone, the film also remains highly ambiguous. Who is the actual witch within the film? How are we to interpret various actions taken by the characters, particularly Thomasin and her younger siblings? Much of the film feels like a dream–or a nightmare–from which Thomasin cannot wake up, and the story could be interpreted as a feminist response to patriarchal religious and cultural systems. I can see the feminist themes, and the film draws to mind comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion in the connection of a budding feminine sexuality with psychological and spiritual breakdown. The Witch also calls to mind The Exorcist and The Shining, two giants in the horror genre which excel due to their horrifying content as well as a well-crafted story and brilliant art direction and cinematography. The Witch isn’t just a great horror film; it’s a great film, period.
A group of Satanists has celebrated the film for its “declaration of feminine independence” and “the call-to-arms for a Satanic uprising against the tyrannical vestiges of bigoted superstitions.” This may leave some Christian viewers unsettled about seeing such a film. I’d say The Witch gives equal critique both to a fundamentalist, oppressive Christianity and the dark world of witchcraft and Satanic rituals. Neither are celebrated or condoned, though one spirituality seems to triumph over the other by the final act. I think the opening subtitle is appropriate: the film is called “A New England Folktale.” A folktale is a story with mythic themes set in a historical context, blending the sensate and the spiritual, exploring moral questions in the context of a concrete story. As a folktale, The Witch‘s ambiguous ending and plurality of interpretations invites further reflection from the viewer about the very real dangers of both ignoring grace and embracing the delicious life. Last year’s Stations of the Cross also explored the damaging effects of a strict fundamentalist faith on a young adolescent woman. While the direction and tone are strikingly different, The Witch and Stations would make for an excellent pairing in exploring feminine spiritual development and the (sad) history of religion in oppressing young women. Both are theologically-rich films which call to mind plenty of questions regarding true Christian spirituality and the darker side of Christian history.
As a horror film, The Witch is certainly scary, but it doesn’t use the jump-scare approach to conjure up dread. I wasn’t as frightened as I anticipated, and there are no lingering nightmares like I had with The Babadook or It Follows. The atmosphere, the tone, the music–these all blend together into an eerie, haunting unease. The Witch is scary in the same way Donald Trump’s recent rise in political influence is scary–it’s a frightening look into a chapter of American history where tightly-held beliefs and assumptions may lead us down a dark path into blind destruction in pursuit of living deliciously.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4263482/