“The Witch” is not really a horror movie. It may be marketed as such for commercial purposes, but the film is too artsy and metaphorical to really be considered one. Like Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist”, it too is shoehorned into the horror genre because it’s the closest generic description one can place on it, even though it’s not really trying to terrify or scare you in any traditional sense. Also, like “Antichrist”, the film is an attack on religion. Sure, religion may more or less exist within the fictional universe both films create as a real, existing entity, but that should not be confused with the films arguing that religion is true in our universe.
The story takes place in what will later be called the United States in the 1600s. A family, lead by patriarch William (Ralph Ineson, who has a great voice and does a good job selling this character) is excommunicated from a Puritan Christian village for heresy. Basically, William is to this village what Ted Cruz is to the Senate Republicans, someone who claims he is a true believer and everyone else is pretender or a sell-out, and thus annoys everyone else around him into shunning him. So, William and his family, which includes wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and their twins and a baby, set out into the wilderness alone to live as a family unit. The film then cuts to a few months later, just before winter falls. Their corn isn’t growing, bread is running scarce, the natives are no longer coming by to trade with them, and they can’t seem to hunt and kill any game for meat. Things, in other words, are not going well. Thomasin perhaps has the seeds of doubt as to religion, and certainly has doubts as to her father’s competency as head of the household, which is heresy itself to believe in a family of this Calvinist dynamic. William and Katherine are having marriage difficulties, with Katherine missing England, losing love and faith in her husband, and yet their religion gets in the way of them having an honest conversation about their feelings with one another, or even to themselves. William, a devout man, can’t reconcile his own feelings of guilt and failure with the religion that tells him he is supreme and correct as the head male of the family. Caleb, meanwhile, is coming of age. Thomasin, being the only girl around his age who is not his mother, is a guilty object of lust to him. He also seeks his father’s approval and to be allowed to fulfill his family and godly role as the eldest male child.
The catalyst for the film’s action is when the baby disappears under Thomasin’s care (in a moment as she shields her eyes to play peek-a-boo with the infant), and how this disruption tears at the little remaining fabric keeping the family, their faith, and their connection to one another together. The film shows us a witch has kidnapped and killed the baby, but is this witch literal, or metaphorical? When the twins say they talk to the family’s goat, named Black Phillip, are they just playing a game, or really talking? Is this a story about false accusations, like “The Crucible”, or is something actually supernatural happening? Is it really the plot that matters, or is this all symbolic window-dressing?
“The Witch” is about how religion gets in the way of and obfuscates everything in life. Whether it’s honesty, relationships, growing up, accepting oneself and their wants and desires, accepting others, or female empowerment, religion is constantly presented in the film as a blockade to healthy human interaction. From the moment William’s pious religiosity forces the family out on their own, the family’s deeply felt and believed religious inclinations cause nothing but sorrow and grief. When the baby disappears and is presumed dead, Caleb is inconsolably upset by the idea that the unbaptized baby has gone to Hell, despite that baby having done nothing wrong. But hey, that’s original sin for you! Katherine is beset with sorrow over this to the point where she spend her days weeping in bed. Thomasin, who already has doubts about her father’s supremacy, overhears that the family essentially plans to sell her off to another family like chattle to survive further, becoming a commodity based on the father’s religion-based failures. Any time these characters attempt to talk to one another, their true feelings cannot be expressed because there are too many requisite references to god which must be spoken in the place of words of comfort or actually, deeply held personal feelings. The only members of the family who truly seem free are the twins because, well, they are too young to be expected to be as deeply religious as the older members who should “know better”.
The devil in this film is a metaphor for rejecting the constraints of religion and living a pure and fulfilling life where you seek out your own desires and are honest about who you are and what you want, and are able to speak your mind. It’s no wonder that a Satanic church endorsed the film. The modern day Satanists are actually atheists who do not believe in the Christian conception of Satan, but rather are “moral hedonists”, who I’d explain in an oversimplified way as Ayn Rand meets Wicca. I’m not much of a fan of Anton LeVay-esque Satanism as it strikes me as the sort of Right-Wing selfishness my Marxist self despises, but their contempt for the major religions rivals my own, so I have a grudging respect for them in an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend sort of manner. The film is a pretty good filmic representation of Satanism’s attitude about Christianity. Since Thomasin is ultimately our main character, this provides the film with a more feminist bent than you’d otherwise get, about femininity being restrained by the straight jacket of Christianity, but given that the other characters are also given arcs that don’t end as freeing and as happily as hers, it can’t be said that the feminist bent is the overarching theme. Caleb in the film is at one point seduced by the devil, which obviously represents the freeing of guilt and embracing of desire, but he becomes a reactionary, falling back into praising his religion, and thus *SPOILER dies because of it *END SPOILER* William is brought down by blaming himself when he should be blaming father, and Katherine is brought down by falling back into a stereotypical mother role instead of freeing herself to follow what she really wants, which is to leave the family and go back to her homeland.
It should be said that the film is masterfully made. The direction and cinematography are beautiful, the score is pitch perfect, the acting is on point (especially considering the accurate period dialogue) and while the film isn’t scary in any traditional sense, a veneer of tension underlies every scene from the beginning shot up until the final shot. From a nuts and bolts construction stand point, the film is flawless. The film even won its director, Robert Eggers, the Best Director award from the Sundance film festival, which is no small achievement.
What the film suffers from is the expectations of the audience. The horror author Brian Keene tweeted that 90% of the audience is too stupid to get the film. I’m likely to agree. Of the 10% who understand the film some, like my girlfriend, will find the message too obvious to be worth all the artistry and hubbub surrounding it. The fact that 90% of the audience would miss such an obvious message is, perhaps, an encapsulation of everything wrong with the modern moviegoer, especially the horror sort who devours PG-13 garbage like “The Forest” and “The Boy”. Still, this is a film that would have benefited from a limited release where the film could be sold as more of what it is instead of what horror audiences may have wanted it to be. This film isn’t up to the level of “Antichrist”, but it’s very good and any film that hates Christianity this much endears itself to me. I guess I perhaps wish it chose a more unique or interesting vehicle for attack than a witch story, as witches are common vehicle for stories of religious fanaticism and zealotry.
“The Witch”, then, is a mismarketed, beautifully made and gorgeous looking film with an obvious message which will still be lost on most of the audience. B.