The Witch is Sublime Horror
Overview: A Puritan family, banished from their community, relocates to the edge of the woods where satanic forces undermine their unity and faith. A24; 2015; Rated R; 93 minutes.
Seduction of the Innocent: From the moment the film’s title, stylized as The VVitch, appears on screen, there is something decidedly off about what we’re witnessing. It’s not simply the persistent sense of dread set by Jarin Blaschke’s gloomy cinematography, or Mark Korven’s score of violently clashing strings punctuating large gaps of silence, which create reason for pause. These elements enhance but do not overtake or distract from our central cause of concern: the characters. Director Robert Eggers perfectly positions this surname-less Puritan family in an animal trap of ignorant innocence. And we spend nearly every minute of the film’s runtime reluctantly waiting for that trap to be set off and to witness weak flesh made unrecognizable by sharp teeth.
Even as subjects of the fire-and-brimstone Christianity of the 17th century, our central characters aren’t a family made up of religious extremists. William, his wife, and their four children not only have flaws, but are allowed to have them even in the eyes of their Lord. They struggle to keep food on the table, to avoid lustful thoughts, and to remain honest. This struggle endears us to these characters, and their isolation from the rest of society and longing for their home in England allows Eggers to explore what defines them as a family and as individuals, before the corruption sets in. It’s only when they are no longer allowed to have flaws in each other’s eyes that the film’s Satanic forces are able to grip hold of them.
The phrase “slow burn” is often used to describe films in which little happens, but where the work as a constant remains significant largely in light of the pay-off. The Witch has been described as a slow-burn, but that couldn’t be more inaccurate. In terms of its narrative stakes, there is nothing constant about this film. Yes, The Witch takes its time in the exploration of both character and setting, but the film consistently counters any premonition about what the audience thinks will happen, and calls everything, even the title, into question. The Witch doesn’t burn slowly; it steadily extinguishes the souls of the characters on screen until nothing innocent remains.
VVilderness of the Soul: Faith is constantly challenged in conversation, and offset by imagery and symbols that hinge on the perversion of Christianity. Often the best horror is defined by that which we cannot see, but in The Witch the opposite is largely true. Eggers frequently uses the camera to focus on characters looking at something in either horror or confusion before the subsequent shot shows us exactly what they were looking at. Often times, the characters’ expression of horror is more jolting than the image revealed, calling into question our own lens of normalcy and giving way to subjective sight…or blindness if you’d prefer.
William’s adolescent daughter, Thomasin (a masterful performance by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy), is frequently used as our gauge for this normalcy, with her expressions becoming our signposts and means to guard our ourselves for whatever horror we’re about to witness. But as the events of the film begin to break down her innocence, and the mistrust and secrecy in her family grows, that perspective becomes less reliable.
While the enigmatic witch of the woods sets off a chain of events with the theft of William’s infant child, the majority of this family’s downfall is paved with little lies and secrets. A silver cup, a Judas piece if ever there was one, becomes a growing source of controversy and ultimately serves to fulfill the film’s promise of no action, line, or image being insignificant. As the eldest child, Thomasin faces the brunt of the ensuing blame and responsibility which causes a further divide in the already strained relationship between she and her mother. Coupled with a prank that grows beyond her control, Thomasin finds herself trying to balance her faith piece by piece, not unlike the unsteady woodpile her father has stacked against their house. When both of these collapse, Thomasin is left with no alternative except to question her morality and reality, which casts everything into the realm of surrealism.
Before the final act, in one of the film’s most disconcerting moments, Eggers once again situates the camera on Thomasin’s expression. She’s staring off into the woods, and we expect, like all the times before, for the next shot to show what she sees in the trees. Instead Eggers cuts to a blurred shot of the back of Thomasin’s head, breaking a cinematic truce and leaving us delightfully disoriented as the film moves into its final minutes. Whereas Thomasin had some level of control before, this twist in shot setup suggests that we can no longer depend on her as an anchor. We as the audience are now only voyeurs, our surrogate blurred and claimed by the abyss of the woods that we cannot be privy to.
Foundations of All We Hold Dear: Robert Eggers’ film may be set in the 17th century, but its themes could not be more contemporary. The Witch basks in the horror beneath the newly laid floorboards of America, and with that comes horrific insights into the American Dream. William and his family are looking for a chance to start over, a chance to thrive on their own and possesses enough to live happily on through hard work and prayer. This isn’t so different from the American Dream that defines the country today. But when community is rejected, and people are faced with the realization that they cannot attain what they sought, that is where the horror seeps in. From the Puritan perspective and the film’s folkloric interests, this horror is a literal result of the devil. But from a more modern perspective, horror is the result of contagious paranoia and the disintegration of the familial unit, which forces humans to find belonging through less savory sources.
Ultimately, it is a deep desire for belonging that defines the witch, a lust to be plural instead of singular. We see this through Thomasin’s younger twin siblings, the two white goats on their “improper” farm, and the rotting pillars of corn. Faith, while established as a communal bond, becomes individualized as each member of the family begins to question it and strays from shared Puritanical notions, just as a difference in faith led to William and his family’s banishment from the larger plantation. Thus, if a community cannot be found through Christ, for this family, then their only alternatives in their isolation is to die alone, or to find community through sin in its lack of rigid rules and explanations. Implicitly doing so, The Witch gives weight to the notion of a coven, and defines it through the outliers of America’s non-secular institutions.
Overall: Anchored by magnetic performances, unsettling imagery, and a spiritual reawakening of the forces that America was built upon, Robert Eggers’ The Witch is an orgasmic orchestration of sin.
Featured Image: A24