dir: Robert Eggers
I fell like I should be calling this ‘The VVitch’ instead, because that’s what it said on all the posters, which I couldn’t work out. Then the lightbulb I keep in a tinfoil hat on my head went bright, and I realised, a few minutes in, that the ‘V V’ is because this movie is set in the time of the Puritan Pilgrims of the 1600s, who were fleeing persecution / going somewhere new in order to dole out more persecution to each other.
It was the time before Ws, when V V stood for Double U. And when they used f in place of s. And everyone was cool with slavery, and Native Americans didn’t have souls so could be killed with impunity. Good times.
Confusing, frightening times. A time of great terror in the face of the unknown in the New World, a place where Puritans thought they were going to come to create a stoic, humourless, sexless Paradise on Earth, and instead they found the place just like everywhere else, just with better views and more squalor.
As this deeply unsettling film starts, a man with a thick Yorkshire accent, and his family, are being expelled from a Puritan plantation, because the lead chap’s religious views slightly contradict the party line of the other Puritans. Or it could be a conflict over those goofy hats with the buckles on them: he’s against them, they’re for them.
Either way, the gruff man William (Ralph Ineson), his on-edge wife (Kate Dickie), their daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb, a pair of fraternal twins, and a baby, their horse, their goats, their dog, and probably their goldfish, they all get the hell out of Dodge and set up a farmstead far from anyone else. I know it’s meant to be New England, but it looks suspiciously like Canada, eh?
Their expulsion from the community and their isolation result from the father having his own interpretation of the strict Calvinist doctrine that underpins the Puritan movement. It’s not possible to forget, watching this, that these people take their religion very goddamn seriously. Almost every second word out of their mouths is some variation on a godbothering theme. In this context, in this setting, what this does is add an extra layer of dread to something that looked like it was going to be pretty difficult anyway.
Let’s face it; survival odds for these people were pretty slim in this era, independent of violence or witchcraft. Just getting enough food, or surviving their diabolical medical practices alone surely were enough to push the mortality rate up sky high. Add to that their general ignorance about anything and everything happening around them, and you’d think they might slightly be screwed anyway even if The Witch of the title wasn’t messing with them.
They have carved out a niche for themselves, next to a forest. Fields for planting. Goats for milk, a stable, a house. These are not insubstantial things. At such a time, without help from anyone else, shunned because of their too religious ways, this would have been incredibly difficult. I sure as shit couldn’t do it. I can barely attach one piece of wood to another with a hammer and a nail without stuffing it up or breaking my hand. But then God is rarely, if ever, on my side.
These good folk, though, believe they have God’s favour, that every good thing that comes their way (ie. not succumbing to starvation or diphtheria for one more day) is as a result of the Good Lord Jesus continuing to shine his approval down upon them.
That is, of course, until He doesn’t, anymore.
Things start to go wrong pretty early on. The family’s youngest member Samuel, a mere baby, goes missing without explanation (well, from the perspective of the family they have no idea: We know full well what’s happened, in all its horror). The mother is inconsolable, the crops fail, the father’s attempts at hunting fail, nothing seems to be going right.
It’s almost like they’ve been cursed or something.
With most of the stories I can think of, set in this kind of era, the whole threat of witches and the devil making work for idle hands and such has generally been used to showcase human evil rather than supernatural evil ie. hypocrisy, scaremongering, ignorant stupidity and mass psychology etc. Everyone knows Miller’s The Crucible was more about the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s/60s than it was about actual witchcraft and such. Mostly, the reason why these approaches are taken is because in this day and age, it’s a hard sell believing in witches and devils being actual things that occur in our reality.
Even the most exquisitely idiotic of morons know that none of the women killed during the Salem trials or in human history as witches were ever actual witches, since there ain’t no such thing as magic anyway. You did know that, right? When you combine social hierarchies with basic general human jealousies, and a milieu in which everything that happens is attributable to either an invisible dude in the sky or an evil demon down below, it’s not a long stretch to start accusing people of witchcraft because they bake better pies than you or because their massively buckled shoes look better on them than they do on you.
It’s rare to see the story done straight, as in, well, maybe they were ignorant people, but they weren’t necessarily wrong.
William is not a cruel man, nor are the rest of the family particularly different from any other people of their era (I guess, I mean I don’t know that for a fact, I’m just assuming). Their faith, perhaps their particular brand of faith, labels anything ‘good’ that happens to them as God’s grace, as having happened only because God or Jesus or someone subbing in for them allows it to happen. Anything bad that happens means two things: God no longer favours them, and Satan himself orchestrates the actual misfortune.
Suffice to say, such a model of belief doesn’t really allow for much scope for building resilience. If something good happens, pray your thanks to God. When something bad happens, pray and beg forgiveness. If more bad stuff happens, find someone nearby and blame them for everything going wrong.
I don’t know how much of a spoiler it would be to say this, but the Witch herself rarely if ever appears, only in fleeting glimpses. She’s got less screen time that the shark from Jaws. Perhaps the real intent here is that the film strongly wants to make the point that these good people will tear each other apart out of fear, religious fervour or basic ignorance before someone or something will appear and actually tear them apart.
Central to this question is who within the family they are going to blame for all of this. They fear dark forces outside of the home, in the forest, anywhere and everywhere, but what they fear even more is someone within the house having given themselves over to Satan. Naturally, suspicion falls on Thomasin, mostly because she’s a teenage girl, and everyone knows Satan loves teenage girls. There is a natural tension between mother and daughter, and this starts off with unease, and ends up with accusations of devil worship and unholy pacts, and, of course, murder.
As far as we know, Thomasin is a dutiful daughter, but with everything going wrong, and her being a girl of domestic servitude / marrying age in this awful time period, even she begins to doubt herself. She wants to be good, but she knows she is bad, because everyone’s bad when you’re a Puritan. The film spends a lot of time just filming her face, her expressions, as if waiting to see her slip up and show her true colours. Sexuality only exists as an undercurrent, never stated explicitly, only in the glances of Caleb at his sister, never anything more than a fleeting presence. You know, kinda like The Witch herself. But it’s there, perhaps thwarted temporarily, but not to be denied in the end.
Always, always, always, a feeling of dread pervades everything. The colours are leached from almost every scene, to make it feel like you’re almost watching a black and white movie. When the blood appears, it’s even more vivid because of this.
The flick builds and builds to what feels like an inevitable climax, but I’m not sure I followed along as to why it ‘needed’ to happen the way it did. Sometimes in horror flicks, there’s a reason for why something happens to a group of people. It’s economical to call it ‘moralising’ and such. Other than being ultra religious (but not actually doing anything particularly ‘bad’ because of it, ie. it’s not like William or his family persecuted anyone or hurt each other), it renders what happens to most of them something akin to a natural disaster arising from the purest of evil.
When the horror comes, and it comes vivid but very sparingly, it intrudes upon their world, upon our consciousness in sequences of very powerful images, but I find myself still asking “Why?” I don’t get the ‘why’ of the story, but maybe I’m asking the wrong question.
The thing I always found absurd about stories some people would like to pass along as fact about demonic possession and witch’s curses and stuff is that I could never really imagine why, like with UFO abduction stories, why vastly intelligent all powerful beings from either other galaxies or the lowest levels of hell, would abduct or possess some moron from some shitty backwater in the middle of nowhere. Why would they bother? What’s in it for them? Not much, is my inevitable reply. Turns out I’m wrong.
At the very end of an episode of Scooby Doo, you’d have the supernatural spook captured, the mask being pulled off, then an explanation of how they did it and mostly why.
At the end of The Witch, after those foolish Puritans spend an hour and a half accusing each other of being in league with Satan, who they stupidly (we would feel like mocking them, from the haughty vantage point of our Enlightenment-blessed modern age) believe takes the form of a black goat, the shock of our lives comes about when, you know, Scooby Doo and the gang go to pull off the villain’s mask, and it turns out to be real. And then Satan kills all of them bar one. And then he welcomes that person into his arms with promises and whispered menace, and the gift of the world being at their feet.
And no-one except the new witch lives happily ever after.
Chilling but pointless, pointed but confusing, is it fair to say? It’ll have to do.
6 times I already knew religious nutjobs deserve the torments of Job to realise the error of their ways, but not like this, Not Like This! out of 10
“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” – who doesn’t? – The Witch