We almost don’t know how to watch movies like this one anymore. We expect to remain unsure about whether or not the witch actually exists in the world of the film. We expect a twist will reveal the witch’s surprise identity or overriding metaphoric cypher. We expect our witches nowadays to be sympathetic. We expect our witches to complicate the systematic, historic vilifying of the midwife and herb woman figures in Europe as obstetrics increasingly became the domain of Christian, university-trained men.
Not so in The Witch: A New England Folktale, written and directed by Robert Eggers. This is a film about evil witches. They’re supernatural and one-dimensional and they’re intent on torturing a Puritan family living in isolation in the New England wilderness.
The establishing shots in The Witch are persistently destabilizing. “What did we go out to this wilderness to find?” a grave, off-screen voice opens the first scene, disorienting viewers as to the occasion that has brought this group of Puritans into a meeting space and the role and authority of the man this voice belongs to. The man is William (Ralph Ineson), a patriarch whose face resembles the axe he will later use to give outlet to his frustrations via the frequent chopping of wood. After refusing to compromise a faith too “prideful” even for Puritan New England—the specifics remain unclear—William and his family choose to banish themselves. As the family exits the plantation in a horse-drawn cart, the last people they see are a pair of Indians entering the town to trade, adding a karmic vibe to the violence that follows.
Arriving at the glade that is to become their homestead, the family prays together in the direction of the foreboding wall of woods, hinting that not all traces of paganism have been expunged from their brand of Christianity. This shot of the distant woods, held for an uncomfortable duration of time, is more unnerving than many of the film’s more shocking grotesqueries, the viewers’ eyes searching and searching the darkness between the tree trunks for a hint of what is to come. Similar to Johnny Greenwood’s ghastly strings at the beginning of There Will Be Blood, Mark Korven’s dissonant, choral score charges the landscape with incredible menace. In style, the soundtrack is reminiscent of Penderecki and is perhaps the true hero of The Witch.
The Witch wastes little time laying down the ground rules about the existence of witches in the world of the film. The camera’s point-of-view during a game of peek-a-boo toggles between teenaged Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her infant brother, Samuel, insinuating viewers into the space of the victims as the game concludes as badly as a game of peek-a-boo can conclude: with the baby stolen away and ritually killed by a haggard, naked, old woman (Bathsheba Garnett), who bathes in the baby’s blood and then—if it was still unclear that this is the eponymous and archetypal witch—basks in the glow of a giant full moon. The mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), enters into a spell of inconsolable grief at the loss of Samuel, and the children stay up at night listening to their parents argue about how best to move forward. Should they return to the plantation in shame? Should they send Thomasin away to serve another family so that she will no longer be a burden?
Katherine’s fears that Samuel is in hell are transferred to her eldest son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), a boy of about twelve who emerges as the moral battleground of the film’s first half. The boy is petrified, caught at an impasse between guilt over a nascent sexuality only sated by incestuous glimpses of Thomasin’s bosom and his inability to come to terms with the fire-and-brimstone tutelage that’s so at odds with his own sense of justice. “Canst thou not tell me what thy corrupt nature is?” William quizzes his son. “My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually,” Caleb produces the correct answer. Fearing their yield of meager crops will not sustain them through the winter, the boy and his father are setting traps in the woods. “We will conquer this wilderness,” William tells his son. “It will not consume us. We will consume it.” The frequent trope of consumption in this film here functions in a karmic capacity, their deaths via cannibalism serving as cruel retribution for westward expansion. “What’s wrong with you?” Thomasin asks her brother as he gathers water by the creek and she scrubs her father’s clothes. The question is too big for the boy, but his face betrays the certainty that something is indeed wrong with him—and wrong with the world around him.
If Caleb is so far the moral center of the movie, his younger twin siblings, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson), are the agents of mischief and chaos. To put an end to Mercy’s pestering, Thomasin takes a little too much delight in playacting the role of the witch who stole Samuel, warning her sister that she will eat her up if she says a word about it to their parents. The trope of consumption here returns, intensified by the children’s invocation of cannibalism, making us question their true innocence—or the influence of the types of stories we tell children. Despite her own bizarre behavior, Mercy is terrified, setting into motion the suspicion that will eventually transfer the moral weight of the film to Thomasin. After Caleb is abducted by a witch (beautiful, then suddenly horrifying, Room 237-style) on an illicit hunting trip though the woods with Thomasin, the parents fear that their eldest daughter may be at fault for her brothers’ disappearance—a fear that is exacerbated when Caleb returns, naked and very obviously “witched,” and the twins confess Thomasin’s sham confession, writhing upon the floor and crying out that their sister’s witchcraft is keeping them from prayer. In maybe the best acting performance in a movie full of pitch-perfect performances, Scrimshaw’s character coughs up a bloody apple and departs this life in an ecstatic, even erotic, embrace of Jesus.
In the hectic aftermath as the family members try to parse out blame, the film is at its most interesting crux—and it is at this crux that The Witch veers away from complicated moral and aesthetic terrain and decides once and for all to just be a really good genre horror film. The reason that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible remains so relevant today is that there are no witches in the play. Harmful ideology combining with regrettably natural human suspicion hexes a community to such an extent that they’re willing to sacrifice innocent people to quell their paranoia, hence the film’s metaphoric ties to Japanese Internment Camps in the US during WWII, the blacklisting of the McCarthy era, right up to our current situation with Syrian refugees. The most interesting part of The Witch is that the family is so convinced of humanity’s fallen, sinful nature that it never occurs to them to even look for an aggressor from without. As with Caleb’s confusion over the state of his infant brother’s soul, something short-circuits in each family member’s brain at this point in the film, driven by a level of senseless punishment that exceeds even their own capacity for submission to divine will.
If, like me, you see The Witch and experience disappointment that the film exchanges something fresher and psychologically deeper for simple horror thrills, you’re likely to experience a further ambivalence with your own disappointment. Namely, why is this turn to genre a problem? Especially since the rise of trade paperbacks and the Hollywood studio system in the first half of the twentieth century, this is not a new dilemma. But the distinctions between high art and low, artistic and generic, have become further complicated in our new Golden Age of Television in which there is so much excellent entertainment with one or both feet fully in genre territory. Many of us, myself included, claim to think more broadly than these simple binary distinctions. I take these feelings of ambivalence to be an intentional achievement of The Witch. It does what it does so well, but it simultaneously barely deviates from the conventional witch script—right down to the most straightforward title possible—that it fully resurrects and intensifies arguments that we thought we’d moved beyond. Even the subtitle is a knowing gesture towards the film’s admittedly modest goals. A folktale.
Seeing this movie took me back to 2002 when we were all trying to guess the big twist in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. High on Shyamalan’s dead people and comic book villain successes, I think most of us were underwhelmed when water and squishy faith were the ingredients for defeating the aliens—who were, in fact, just aliens from outer space. When I made these complaints to a friend of mine who claimed to like the film, he asked whether or not I’d enjoyed the movie the whole time I was watching it—and I admitted with some reluctance that I had. The Witch is a stronger movie than Signs, but it too is a far more satisfying movie if you resign yourself to the fact that it’s just a movie about witches. I can think of other films where I have no problem going along on the genre ride; Signs and The Witch left me ambivalent specifically because the seams are so visible where the films start to move towards complexity before palpably hesitating and turning back towards what’s comfortable. What makes The Witch so very watchable is that this move back towards familiarity involves a demonic ram named Black Phillip goring William with his horns and then head-butting him into the giant woodpile that serves as the man’s personal objective correlative for all that’s frustrating about his zealous, hardscrabble, frontier existence.