(Plot points discussed in detail)
Directorial debut of Robert Eggers, The Witch is set in 1630s New England following a puritan family banished from their colonial plantation due to the father’s dissenting interpretations of the New Testament. In the springtime, the family build a small farm in the wilderness surrounded by a dense woodland with the promise of a bright new life. We are dropped back in several months later, by which time the farm is built but the green land they had settled in appears desolate and infertile. When baby Samuel is kidnapped and taken into the woods by an unknown figure whilst under eldest daughter Thomasin’s care, the structures and bonds that hold the family together are truly put to the test.
What really caught my attention in this film was the depth at which it explored the tensions created by the family unit, with the parents William and Katherine, portrayed brilliantly by Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, struggling to uphold traditional societal positions closely entangled with the suffocating religious doctrines they believe they must adhere. Eggers delivers a surprisingly human story relating to the subjective standards at which we are held accountable for by the culture and society we inhabit. What we see is a truly disturbing descent into a state of god fearing paranoid hysteria, by its conclusion becoming a twisted and unexpected tale of empowerment. In this coming of age story in which the chains oppressing the characters are finally broken, we as an audience are left questioning the validity of these structures we choose to follow. The truth the film asks us to accept is that as humans we are easily susceptible to failure and to temptation. Should we not recognize the darkness that is within us all, rather than pretending we could be anything else?
The story is supported by Eggers great appreciation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with the camera direction and score alone creating a chilling sense of unease. Eggers claims in an interview with Vice he feels almost embarrassed by the amount of The Shining he sees in his own work, but he brings more than enough to the table with a truly impressive script and attention to historical detail which are so effective in making the scenes feel genuine.
I am convinced that given time this film will come to be regarded as a classic horror. Released in a decade when most studio horror releases play so much to the genre’s expectations, this fantastic first effort by Eggers creates much of its captivating and claustrophobic atmosphere in a way that feels thoroughly fresh. Through the perspective of Thomasin, played exceptionally by Anya Taylor-Joy, the eldest daughter of the family, we are dropped into a thankless world where expression and sexuality is forbidden and liberty is equated with sin. The first lines spoken by Thomasin under the watch of her mother are of confession and repentance. She kneels on the floor desperately begging for God’s forgiveness while claiming she deserves to live in more misery as punishment for breaking his commandments. As the framing draws us to focus upon Thomasin’s eyes, we as an audience find it difficult not to question her true convictions. Both her and her younger brother Caleb show some skepticism about the world they inhabit and this bond harbors one of the few positive relationships we find within the story.
What I think is really special about this about this film, and what I believe will earn it its place in the horror canon, is that the suspense and tragedy of the story comes not, as you might expect, from the witches that live in the woods, but from those overbearing puritanical and patriarchal structures that have dripped into every facet of the character’s lives creating an incredibly claustrophobic and overwhelming atmosphere. The children in the film are victims, unable to reflect to the ideals that their parents smother them with. The two youngsters, Mercy and Jonas, dance and sing around the farm chanting about the family goat ‘Black Phillip’, whom they claim whispers secrets to them, while the second eldest child, Caleb, begins to recognize his sexuality, stealing glances at his older sisters’ chest as they work for their parents by a brook. Thomasin, as the eldest child takes on many responsibilities, existing almost solely as a worker for the farm, to be married off and to bear children when it suits her parents. Despite her hard work, it is not long after her brother Samuel is taken that accusations are directed towards her. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation which I feel surrounds her character as a young woman in a world that is predisposed to be suspicious of her. Throughout the film however Thomasin repeatedly shows resistance against the injustice she faces, and even holds her father to account for his wrongs, at which point he throws her to the ground cursing her. Thomasin, despite her situation remains strong and unwilling to accept the world that holds her down under its false pretenses of virtue.
Although it might seem that the children are victims of their parent’s decisions, the film does present other perspectives. William’s efforts to make their new life work is motivated by his pride as patriarch and the resulting unwillingness to recognize his failures. He chops wood all day piling impressive stacks next to their small home as an empty symbol of his position. The supply of wood however does little for the failed crops or their scarcity of money, leaving the family hungry and in fear of starvation. William is unable to accept he has led his wife and children to their death. I definitely see him as a character to feel sympathy for, as each of the characters (like us) has been born into a way of life they had no power over, and each in their own way becomes a victim to it.
In the end the family’s inevitable downfall is brought on by their inability to live this life of piety. Everyone save Thomasin is left dead by the film’s conclusion. Caleb, lured by his repressed sexual curiosity, walks into the arms of a witch in the woods resulting in his possession and eventual death, while Katherine often talks of a loss of faith and of regret for leaving England, a decision most likely made by William to preserve their religious purity. Katherine represents one resigned to the idea that women are objects of temptation going as far as to accuse her own daughter of seducing Caleb and her father. William, through his unwavering stance at the head of the household is ultimately left crushed by the great piles of wood he had produced, the collapsed symbol of his pride. Now, that’s some poetic justice for you. Only Thomasin remains, who in the first real choice of her life, rejects the structures of her upbringing, walking naked into the woods to join a coven of witches. As she reaches the circle of naked, chanting women she ascends into the air laughing, overwhelmed with joy at her newly found freedom.
It’s a very interesting ending that left me really unsure of how to feel. Thomasin has become what we and her family had initially feared throughout the film, but has as a result been freed from the thankless existence she endured on the farm. She can finally live “deliciously”, as black Philip suggests, and without responsibility to follow the skewed standards society has dictated upon her. To call it a happy ending certainly doesn’t feel fitting but the film did raise some poignant questions about the nature of humanity that are relevant not just to the world depicted in the film but to any current discussion of philosophy and culture. Like the characters in the film many of us endlessly seek to find purpose by following pre-established paths to supposed virtue, be it starting a family or working your way up the social ladder of “success”. If we were able to come to terms with the darkness and fallibility that resides within us all, perhaps then we would truly uncover a healthier and richer experience of life.
Anyway, I’m off to mash up some babies for some flying ointment and have a ball on my broomstick… Live Deliciously!
edited by Aysha Panter