2015 | NR | USA | Robert Eggers | 93 min
Summary: A brilliant and unsettling film that perfectly balances natural and supernatural explanations.
Robert Eggers has written and directed one of those rare horror films that will, without a doubt, enter the canon of important and enduring horror films: it will be loved by all kinds of fans for all kinds of reasons; and it will be talked about for years and taught in film classes. In case that puts you off, don’t let it! The film is also beautiful, viscerally disturbing, and downright scary. The acting is brilliant—especially Ralph Ineson as the father, William, and the luminescent Anya Taylor-Joy as his eldest daughter Thomasin. Try taking your eyes off her when she’s on the screen.
The Witch opens with a family’s excommunication from a New England village in the 1630s. William, it seems, has had a disagreement with the all-powerful church, and so he and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and five children must move to the very edge of hard-cultivated land, their lives overshadowed by the wild, almost-impenetrable forest that borders their little farm. As the film begins, we learn that things are not going well: food is scarce, as some kind of rot has blighted the crops, and William and his oldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) have been forced to venture into the woods to hunt.
The desperate visit into the woods seems to set off a series of increasingly disturbing events, not least, the baby, Sam, disappears from right beneath Thomasin’s nose as she plays peek-a-boo with him. It’s this event, really, that begins the slow slide into horror. And it’s this event that sets the tone for the film, because we’re never quite sure what happens to Sam. William is convinced for a while that a wolf took him, and there’s mention of the animal’s tracks. Or was it God’s punishment? For what? Was it witchcraft? If so, who (and where) is the witch?
As strange events start multiplying, every rational explanation for what befalls the family is shadowed by explanations that are drawn from the realm of the supernatural. In one of America’s real colonies, in 1693, Puritan minister Cotton Mather wrote a book defending the Salem witchcraft trials called Wonders of the Invisible World. Eggers’s film beautifully captures how completely early American settlers lived life in both the visible and invisible worlds. Just as the family ekes a living on the edge of the menacing forest, so too do they try to survive on the edge of an invisible world ruled over not only by God (and a punitive God at that), but also by Satan. There’s this world and then there’s the next—and the line separating those worlds isn’t a line at all, and the worlds aren’t separate.
The Witch is terrifying, then, for how clearly it delineates the fragility of humans trying to survive in a world governed both by a remorseless and indifferent nature and by their own seemingly unshakeable dedication to seeing the hand of divine powers in their lives.
And running under it all is a different kind of inevitable power—the power of very human desire and all the strange channels through which those desires run. The center of the family and what happens to it is Thomasin. She is a compelling figure and incites strong feelings from everyone—her mother, her father, her brothers and her sister. Thomasin is on the cusp of womanhood (her father talks of moving her back to town in large part for that reason)—and her slightly-younger brother Caleb can’t help but notice her. Thomasin tries to discipline her much younger siblings, Jonas and Mercy, and they resent her for it. Her mother blames her for everything, and we can’t help but feel that her blame is born of envy, blossoming from the barest hint of the excessively-strong love of the father for his daughter.
Thomasin is also the most clear-sighted—the last to attribute everything to the workings of that “invisible world.” She calls her father out on his hypocrisy in a memorable scene that utterly transgresses her subordinate role in the family. Thomasin embodies desire (everyone’s desire, it seems) and she also embodies will—and desire and will are just other words for sin in this world.
The Witch leaves you with choices to make. Is this film about Nature? About crops failing, about wolves, about the dread that can be induced by being alone in the implacable wilderness? Is the film about human nature? Is it about sexual desire, which sometimes runs where society deems it shouldn’t? Is it about envy, grief, loss, aging? About will and the need to find freedom from received and confining truths? Is it about the imagination, about fantasy, about our propensity to interpret what happens to us through stories our culture tells—the accepted and the taboo? Or is it about the reality of the devil in the world? Whatever that means.
It just so happened that the day before seeing The Witch, I had been reading Eugene Thacker’s Tentacles Longer than Night (2015), part 3 of his Horror of Philosophy. Thacker describes how the importance of horror (especially supernatural horror) lies in its ability to thoroughly challenge everything we think we know:
Perhaps genres such as the horror genre are interesting not because we can devise ingenious explanatory models for them, but because they cause us to question some of our most basic assumptions about the knowledge-production process itself, or about the hubris of living in the human-centric world in which we currently live.[i]
The Witch brilliantly engages in this project. From beginning to end, the film never answers the question of what happens (and why). Eggers’s brilliant directing consistently suggests that apparent manifestations of witchcraft could be psychological projections, wished (or feared) fantasies. The film ends up, then, fundamentally challenging what we think we know and our place at the center of everything. Something other than the human is in control, whether that thing is nature, desire, fear, or the devil.
[i] Eugene Thacker, Tentacles Longer than Night. Horror of Philosophy, vol. 3 (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2015), p. 11.