THE WITCH: BEWITCHING HORROR
THE WITCH (2015) is a near-masterpiece of horror. What a debut by director Robert Eggers, to have a movie such as this under his belt. It’s not perfect (we’ll get to that shortly), but what it does in terms of mood and atmosphere and setting is effectively rendered.
First off, much has been made of Eggers’ keen attention to historical detail in creating the Puritanical 1630 setting. And that’s important to mention, because it fundamentally anchors the story marvelously well.
The actors talk like historical Puritans, and I loved that about it, the way they’d go about everyday things in their increasingly bewitched lives while spouting out Puritanical dialogue in their respective accents. Gripping!
The casting was superb — Anya Taylor-Joy ought to be a star after her amazing performance. And it was great to see two Game of Thrones alums: Ralph Ineson and the ever-vexed Kate Dickie present. I say ever-vexed with Kate Dickie because the benighted shadow of Lysa Arryn hangs close over her character, Katherine, in this movie.
Having those actors chosen for their careworn faces lent real credence to their roles as these literally God-fearing Puritans, busy trying to make a new life in the New World, only to have themselves beset by a very wicked witch. Lest this count as a spoiler to you, know that there really is a witch in this movie, and one might say that this could have undermined the movie a bit in terms of there being an unambiguous witch in there, and evidently malevolent witchcraft.
Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin is a greatly-realized character, the charmingly rendered portrayal of a teenaged Puritan. I actually loved that, seeing the contradictions of adolescence run through the meatgrinder of Puritan morality (something America has never fully shaken, to be honest, as our periodic moral panics invariably show).
Eggers drinks deep from Kubrick’s well in this movie, to great effect. The use of silence, the taking of time to set up shots and scenes that look like they could have been paintings if they’d been still shots. His use of music and horrific musical sounds is fundamentally Kubrickian, and it works here, too.
There are some scenes of horror in this movie that made the audience actually gasp and moan out loud, which I hadn’t heard from a movie audience in years (the scene with the raven was what did it for folks).
There’s a way that Eggers shot this movie that makes it feel less like a movie and far more like a window into these people’s increasingly imperiled and claustrophobic lives that makes it very effective.
Nature is all around them, but it’s fundamentally not a benevolent Nature — rather, it’s a cold and cruel Nature, utterly indifferent to Man, and, in the personage of the witch, who is more than bound up in it, hostile to Man. And there’s the damned (literally and figuratively) animals — the devilish jackrabbit (or be it the Witch in disguise?), demonic Black Phillip (world’s coolest Satanic goat), and the aforementioned diabolical raven. Nature’s got more than a few bones to pick with Man, and the Witch, most of all.
Interestingly, this may be the most feminist movie since FURY ROAD. The female characters, starting with Thomasin first and foremost, but also Katherine, little Mercy, and, of course, the Witch, all dominate the story. Despite patriarch William’s natural (to Puritans) place as the head of the household, his patriarchal authority is undermined and overturned pretty damned quickly by the machinations of the Witch. And his sons, Caleb and Jonas (to say nothing of poor Samuel, first victim of the Witch — not a spoiler if you’ve seen the damned trailer), are similarly adrift.
It is the women who drive the action of this movie, through and through, so, that’s something that should ring out to people watching this movie. The illiterate Thomasin won’t be bartered off by her parents as she comes of age, oh, no….
Against This Witch, You Haven’t Got a Prayer
It’s interesting the way this utterly devout family faces this utter evil they encounter. It’s a blend of disbelief, wonderment, weary resignation. I found myself as a modern person frustrated by their seeming apathy in the face of evil. But it’s surely part of the point that Eggers is trying to make in this movie — if you’re a believer up against absolute evil, you haven’t got a prayer.
The family are literally out of their league against the witch. They lack the tools to effectively face down the evil.
In the context of this movie, against the grimly empty piety of Puritanism, witchcraft surely is a persuasive (if sinister) alternative — if you can’t beat’em, join’em. The family flails about while the witch vexes and hexes them, and they turn on each other instead of against their common enemy. And, again, there’s surely an American parable within this. This family is overmatched against the witch they face. They lack the intellectual (and even moral) tools to wage proper battle against an enemy of this magnitude.
There are some possible missteps near the end (I won’t spoil them) in the sense that it undermines some of what had been so well-built before that point, in terms of the characterization of Thomasin. It works, but it’s an open question as to whether it was necessary as a payoff in the end, since it sort of hammers the point home with a fateful bludgeon that wasn’t fully necessary.
A stronger ending would have had Thomasin venturing out into the woods as depicted in the movie posters — it would have evoked the uncanny more effectively through its minimalism and ambiguity, versus the clear absence of ambiguity in the end. But it’s not enough of a complaint to completely derail the movie; it only prevents it from being a true masterpiece. It comes damned closed, though.
There are some fabulous moments of horror that are incredibly well-staged. The washed-out colors that reign for most of the movie serve to bombard the modern viewer with the cold brutality of nature. The family is in the American wilderness, and it is not a Paradise, so much as it is a kind of Purgatory, right next door to Hell.
A worthy addition to the horror movie canon, beautifully and evocatively shot, well-acted, and with some transcendent moments of horror, THE WITCH is well-worth your time. It’s not a happy movie by any means. It’s damned grim, but it’s effective.
I’ll add that this is a HORROR movie in the fullest sense. It’s not so much a scary movie, as a horrifying one. So, if you’re looking for a rollercoaster adventure ride, it’s not that type of movie. But if you’re looking for genuine horror and an escalating dread, then you should not be disappointed.
By the way: If you can’t get enough of witches, be sure to pick up WAX & WANE: A GATHERING OF WITCH TALES