Directed by: Robert Eggers
The Plot: Cast out of their community a Puritan family (Ralph Ineson, Katie Dickie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw) must build a life for themselves in the unsettled interior of New England. Tragically, for all involved, they set up shop in territory under the rule of a ruthless witch.
The Film: Though it isn’t genre specific enough to be termed a ‘horror’ film, David Eggers The Witch suggests that the human tradition of telling ghost stories could have just as easily gestated from the pulpit as it did from the campfire.
In the opening scene in the film the first of many transgressions is committed by this story’s Puritanical matriarch, William. The sin of pride. Rebellion against the Church of England has driven the Calvinist Puritans to the shores of Eastern America to practice their brand of Christianity in relative peace, and here we have William boldly declaring his town elders not pure enough to judge him. Not pure enough Puritans to share his company. As a consequence William and his small family are banished from town, moving even further East then their English kin, and though they find a new plot of land (“about a day’s ride by horse…”) and are positive that God has lead them to this vacant, and seemingly peaceful, destination. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In Eggers world of Christian and Witch the early Americas have a theocratic ecology along with the natural one, and to disrupt this system carries dramatic and devastating effects. The Puritan township is a frontier spiritual garrison, harboring the righteous from the heathen wilds of the American interior. There is talk much later in the film of a child put under an “Indian spell” and driven mad – so the threat of attack from the Native American population isn’t relegated to just physical harm, but spiritual as well. The new continent is not in subjugation to the Christian just yet, but William’s brazen enough in his belief to brave settling this dangerous territory on his own. The consequences for his lapse in humility are as brutal as they are mortal. Within the first year his fields have gone fallow and his unbaptised infant son Samuel has been kidnapped and hauled quietly into the forest by a hag in a red cloak, who then brutally murders him.
Distilled down to its essence Robert Eggers’ award winning The Witch is a film about people with limited options. Maybe a year behind his sister in age, first born son Caleb can’t help but notice that Thomasin has started developing into a young woman. In fact, the budding sexuality of their two eldest children carries as much dark portents for this family as the titular “witch” herself. Since their family was exiled Caleb doesn’t have any other feminine options for him to gawk at as he approaches puberty. He simply can’t help himself. Just as Thomasin can’t help developing. Her parents, left with few options themselves, opt to send Thomasin to live with a family in town. A decision the children overhear and act rashly upon.
William himself spends most of his days chopping fire wood. No amount of work seems to be able to pull a single viable crop from his farm’s dead fields, so being the head of his homestead he releases his pent-up anxieties splitting wood for the fire pit. As deaths mount up, and accusations of witchcraft are exchanged between his children, William, out of options, turns to prayer.
In one of the film’s best scenes (outside of a bizarre and genuinely moving moment in the movie where a character is seemingly blessed by the grace of God) William boards his surviving children up in a stable – whether to protect he and his wife from them, or to simply lock them away from whoever, or whatever, is raiding his farm at night – and then kneels formally on the ground and throws himself before the mercy of the holy court of heaven. William pleads tearfully with God to excuse what remains of his family from his sins. He’s been deceitful. His pride has lead him to a place where what family he has that hasn’t been snatched away and murdered, is left hungry. He knows he’s earned damnation for his crimes, but he pleads with God to pardon what’s left of his family from them. Underlying his tears we sense the inner conflict in William as he certainly must be struggling to comprehend just how it is an eternity spent burning in hellfire is going to be worse than his current condition in the haunted forests of New Hampshire. It’s a powerful assertion in this film. As traumatic as it is heartbreaking.
William’s Puritanism isn’t presented as it usually is in fiction. In fact it’s laudable the level of dignity and care Eggers extends to these people and their religious heritage. Unlike generic ecclesiastical thrillers Robert Eggers doesn’t present faith in God as a case of rabies, driving the inflicted to euphoric frenzy. In this film it’s simply a foundation to build a family upon – and, as it happens, a country upon. Yet one of the more terrifying elements of The Witch is bearing witness to the severity of the punishment meted out to William’s family. A family whose sins – fibbing, desire, pride, jealousy – feel antique and insignificant when compared to our own. They plod through an already difficult existence bearing the weight of their spiritual corruption as if it were an apron of lead. Their white lies and infractions against scripture are hairline fractures within the family structure. When pressure is applied – whether by human nature, or by the supernatural – these sprains become breaks. Their Puritan God is Old Testament. Less forgiving. Less understanding of hunger pains.
In contrast, their Devil is absolutely merciless.
The witch herself is conventional in the Grimm’s fairy-tale sense. Though much less conventional when paired with modern conceptions. Contemporary filmmakers might manufacture this creature as something of a misunderstood feminist. A victim of her time and her sexual innovations, forced to exist under the regime of authoritarian (Christian) subjection. In Egger’s film the witch is, to put it directly, a vicious bitch. A malignant crone not about to wait around for her Christian trespassers to unify against her, and haul her to anything as courteous as a trial. This witch is pure offense.
She’s the type of monster that will casually eviscerate a family dog, and leave it gutted and screaming for its owners to stumble upon.
The few issues I have with The Witch are recommending that the viewer have a tolerance for ye’ spoken Old English of William Shakespeare. Though the language of the piece demonstrably grounds this story to its place in history, much of the dialog gets a bit lost in translation – at least during the initial viewing. A rudimentary knowledge of Bible story isn’t a requirement, but it could certainly help the viewer appreciate the depth of Eggers’ composition. The wife of Job, the story of Abraham and Isaac, and Satan’s confrontation with Christ in the wilderness are all referenced and even mimicked in The Witch. The latter most effectively.
Though I believe it’s a major disservice – both to the paying customer and to the final product itself – to brand this film as horror, we must fit The Witch into some sort of denomination. Though it may transcend the genre’s expectations for quality, (the actors may have been initially looked at for their odd faces, but every last one puts on as convincing and stirring a performance as you’ll find anywhere this awards season) it doesn’t really pack the punch horror-hounds may have come to expect.
This isn’t your traditional horror movie by any stretch of the imagination. The Witch feels more like a sadistic morality play – a cinematic sermon raving against the diabolical terrors lurking just outside the protective doors of the church. Most of the horror in this film is generated from Mark Koven’s (yes, that’s his actual name) musical score – orchestrated to mold the maximum gross of gooseflesh possible – and the spooky, vividly unsettling climax to this story.
The Witch’s ending is chilling stuff. Especially when you consider a certain character’s decision weighed against – once again – what their limited options were. You might find yourself haunted by the final shot in this film. I certainly was.
The Verdict: Emphatically dark and all kinds of interesting, Robert Eggers’ The Witch completely dismantles every expectation for telling this kind of historical folktale. Few mainstream films, and even fewer horror films, carry this much atmosphere and leave a viewer with this much to chew on. The Witch is a sinister, disturbing, wholly strange fairytale of sin, salvation, and the supernatural. The horror genre should be so lucky to have her as a member.