Lesson: Don’t…move to…the woods?
I’ve been excited for The Witch since its successful premier at Sundance last year, receiving high accolades and earning Robert Eggers ‘Best Director:Dramatic’. Eggers is able to successfully present a film that it is able to examine and provide a nuanced criticism of Puritan values. Spoilers ahead, so please proceed with caution.
To dismiss The Witch as pure horror would be hasty. This is a film that’s selective with its horror punches, but relentlessly ratchets up the tension throughout the 90 minute run time. The cinematography is frequently tight and abstracted, limiting the shots of sprawling landscapes only when it is necessary to display a degree of mortal frailty. This method is immediately apparent as we see the father, William, renounce the plantation he lives on in order to take his family away and continue his particular band of Puritan-ism. These opening scenes are viewed through close-up shots of the family in a crowded courtroom, followed by the family kneeling at the edge of the forest while the camera pans out to show their new home echoed by a cacophonous soundtrack. A quick flash forward in time and we rejoin the family, now mostly established on a farm near the woods, presumably in ‘somewhere’ New England. There are more children now, including eldest girl Thomasin, eldest boy Caleb, twins Jonas and Mercy, and baby Samuel.
The intense attention to detail and dedication to historical context helps The Witch say about sexuality and religion (and kind of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream), especially given the small nuclear family dynamic. It’s able to take a look at the comforts fanatical religion can bring, as well as the limitations. The beginning of the film takes us through William’s steadfastness regarding his religion, his firm belief that God will help them survive exile. His family accepts this unconditionally, only Thomasin hesitating to leave the courtroom. Katherine, the wife, doesn’t express a strong desire to simply go home (to England) until the latter part of the movie. Consider the immense challenges faced by leaving your home country, starting a new society, then leaving that society to live in exile in the wilderness. I would warrant that having a higher power and a set of pre-determined text/rules/guidelines would be of immense comfort.
In fact, it is this exact comfort that makes the ensuing deterioration more frightening. A shaky Caleb asks his father if Samuel, the now vanished/presumed dead baby brother, is going to hell (he hadn’t been baptized) and William is unable to give him a firm answer, simply stating that they all loved Samuel deeply and only God could make that decision. Caleb struggles with this concept, being young himself and not considered absolved of all sin, and wonders if he would also go to Hell if he died. This is the first indicator of the failures of their comfort. The situation escalates further as William finds himself making exception after exception and seeing most of the blame pass to his eldest daughter, Thomasin; all the while watching the resentment build as his wife becomes more hostile towards her.
Katherine is kept the most guarded, spending a large part of the movie weeping over the loss of her son, but never showing even a strand of her hair, even in her pure and utter grief, until, of course, the end of the film. She leans on Thomasin more and more while her resentment grows, particularly as Thomasin is framed for the loss of the remaining good. Katherine unravels, rapidly, as first she loses her baby, then her only tie with her family and England (the silver cup), and then her eldest boy child. It becomes increasingly clear that Katherine views Thomasin as a source of temptation in the wilderness. She sees Caleb ogling his sister as he moves into puberty and struggles with a power balance as Thomasin is expected to control the twins and be an obedient daughter.
Caleb’s death is one of the best things I have seen in horror. Firstly, I was not expecting him to return to the farm at all, so I was already caught off-guard. There was no predictability with his death. Secondly, the fact that Eggers wrapped up his death with the same ecstasy that Katherine describes when she relates her dream of her Lord is chilling. In this case, ecstasy, is the fuzzy not-quite-sexual purest form of mortal happiness that is, religiously, only achieved by oneness with God. This is the purest form of existence, and what many believe Heaven to be like. It’s emotional when Katherine describes it to William, particularly because she dismisses his earthly love, telling him that she never expected to find that kind of love on Earth. This is a case of her religious comforts failing her — living her whole life to receive that kind of ecstasy in the afterlife, only to have everything stolen from her, challenging her faith and her sanity. She has to witness Caleb pass after extolling the virtues and love of God, all while the twins convulse and Thomasin has just been accused of witchcraft. When William attempts to comfort her, she reminds him that the Devil speaks in scripture, too.
Love, and all of the good and bad it brings with it, are the forefront of The Witch. Jealousy, temptation, infidelity and fear drive this family apart, coaxed by the unknown of their environment and, of course, the witch. The line between Godly love and Earthly love is thin and strained, with more parallels than contrasts. William is consistently painted as a Christ figure, often with his hands literally outstretched. He chops wood while swathed in a white cloth, a symbol of Christ on the cross. This is perhaps indicative of his eventual death, where — having prayed for the salvation of his family at the cost of his own life — Black Phillip (Black Philip is a pure black goat that is definitely not the devil) strikes him in the side. William raises an ax to slay the beast, but quietly relinquishes the weapon and allows the goat to fling him into the woodpile, where he dies. The religious associations are also obviously strong with Caleb’s death, as he coughs up an apple in one of the most chilling moments in the film. Popular culture paints the apple as Eve’s original sin (and the downfall of Adam, if you ask some Christians), and also serves as a connection to Caleb’s original lie, earlier in the film. It adds to the power of the scene, with something so normally innocuous becoming so sinister in this context.
I’ve seen The Witch described as a ‘coming of age’ tale, and I would agree …sort of. Thomasin and Caleb are both caught in the beginnings of puberty, and are treated differently (but traditionally) in the overarching narrative. Thomasin, as I’ve said already, becomes a source resentment for her mother, and soon Katherine and William are discussing finding another family to wed her off to. At first, it’s because because they are running out of food, then out of pure fear for survival, and then because Thomasin is an accused witch. Her sexuality becomes a liability, and makes her a willing vessel for the ultimate temptation — Satan. I’m a little divided on whether or not her resolution is empowering or not, as I wouldn’t view a complete departure and dedication to Lucifer empowerment, despite some inherent autonomy for Thomasin. Caleb, on the flip side, becomes extremely susceptible in his budding sexuality, even catching himself staring at his sister’s breasts. He just can’t help himself, which ultimately becomes his downfall as he encounters the Witch in the Woods.
Arguably there are not many ‘scares’ in The Witch, but Eggers chooses his moments carefully. Everything feels seamless as you experience the family deteriorate. There are many horror movies that focus on the deterioration of a family, although they are not often successful, with the horror often subsidiary rather than central. In fact, I’ve gone through most of this review without mentioning many of the pure horror aspects. The end of the film has a beautiful balance of continued tension and horror payoff, rather than a sudden escalation that risks losing the audience to complacency.
Really, there was only one significant chunk of movie that I didn’t like, and that was Caleb’s encounter with the Witch in the woods. I’m of the opinion that the entire sequence could have been nixed, but I’ll acknowledge it was important to nod to Caleb’s sexuality. Having the Witch appear in a red cloak to lure him in for a kiss and grab at him with a monster hand was shockingly heavy-handed for this film.
I really loved The Witch, although I feel like maybe the trailers made it out to be more of an action-based horror rather than a slow creeping tension thriller. This is no James Wan scare-a-thon jump-scare resplendent horror. The cast is superb, the soundtrack an ideal companion, the technical execution brilliant. Eggers accomplishes the rare task of perfectly mixing theme, story, and setting, and it makes me wish for more historically accurate horror. Consequently, I am very excited to see the Eggers adaptation of Nosferatu.