The Witch (or, The VVitch if you want to get olde english up in here) debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, as the directorial debut of Robert Eggers. This pleasant little film is part historical period drama, part supernatural horror film, featuring a puritanical family being tormented by a malicious paranormal force in the woods bordering their home. The puritan faith deems that spiritual salvation can only be obtained through mortal suffering, and these poor yokels are in for their fair share, so let's get started.
The film opens in a New England settlement as the patriarch of a family squares off with the town elders over interpretations of the New Testament. Deciding that he would rather take his bible and go home, the father, William, as played by the rumbling-voiced Ralph Innison, takes his family out of the community and heads off into the frontier, determined to start a farm afresh with his kin. All dialogue in the film is spoken in historically appropriate english, and the actors do a very good job of selling it. At once the tone of the film is struck with eerie music and shots that linger over untamed American landscape, washed out with a stark grey filter that gives the forests that surround the home a dead, uninviting quality. The sun is seldom seen in this film, giving way to gloomy cloud cover that sets an autumn haze over the film and the characters.
Things really kick off when the family, now residing in a swiftly built cottage, begin to feel the effects of the supernatural force living in the forest. Thomasin, the oldest child of the family played by Anna Taylor-Joy, is playing with her infant brother, when he suddenly dissapears from under her gaze. The panicking family believe that the baby was carried into the woods by an animal or possibly under his own power, though that explanation leaves me with the mental image of a baby sprinting for the treeline like an escaped POW. The search is on, though there are no illusions that the baby is as good as dead. The point is hammered home by a scene set that night in an unknown location, displaying the baby being prepared for sacrifice and presumably being reduced to the bloody paste that a shadowy, nude old woman rubs over her body. The lighting doesn't reveal many details in this undialogued scene, and frankly that's for the best. The aforementioned slippery bint then disappears into the night, leaving no doubts that the film called The Witch plans to deliver on it's promise.
As chilling as this scene is, I cannot help but feel that it is placed a tad too early in the narrative. The trigger is pulled on the reveal of the witch far too soon, and the chance to play with paranioa and accusation of the time period in the style of The Crucible, and even whether or not there is even a supernatural element at play in this family's suffering, is lost. Everything from this point onward is very clearly the actions of a malign paranormal being tormenting a family that has settled too close to her domain.
There is an odd bit of moral relativity back at the homestead when the majority of the family, save the distraught mother, quietly get back to their chores and daily duties. Most seem to understand that this is the 17th century, and life expectancy as a concept is pretty laughable. When you settle out in the wilderness, you're going to lose a few kids. This doesn't stop William and the second oldest, Caleb, from venturing into the woods to hunt, against the wishes of the matriarch, Katherine. This movie is full of surprisingly good scenes where people defined by their staunch religious fundamentalism have conversations about the nature of faith and original sin, this father-and-son discussion centering around the destination of the dead child's soul, and whether this baby faces damnation for sins he had no time to absolve himself of. It's heavy stuff, and marked further when the duo spot a grey hare that their dog refuses to approach. The animal escapes their attempts to shoot it when William's arquebus backfires. I can also offer kudos to the filmmakers for casting such a spooky looking bunny.
They trudge home and get an earful from the mother about wandering off, though Caleb lies about their trip into the forest, covering for his father. As William goes off to cut wood, Caleb heads to the river and we get a charming dose of mild incest as he ogles his sisters chest from the corner of his eye. This scene certainly adds another disturbing layer to the film, though this kid has a rough deal: Entering puberty, becoming a young man in puritan New England, living out in the middle of nowhere and the only good looking woman in miles is your direct family. He quietly goes about his duties and makes way for the TRULY annoying and creepy kids in the film.
As soon as they show up, I start to hope that the two loudmouthed twins are the next to go. A brother and sister named Jonah and Mercy seem to make a habit of galloping around the farmstead, composing and blaring out makeshift songs and playing with a goat by the name of Black Philip, who doesn't really seem to want any of this. These two kids are so piercingly irritating, that it is a small relief when Thomasin finally shuts them up by claiming to be a Witch of the Woods, cursing the two and scaring them off. Such games rarely pan out well in this time period, but for now we can appreciate the silence. It isn't helped that Thomasin is clearly in a rough relationship with her mother, who accuses her of everything that has gone ill for the family over a dimly lit dinner. Once again, one of Williams children covers his ass when Thomasin indirectly takes the blame for a debacle surrounding a silver cup that he discreetly sold to buy the supplies that they have been living off of. The family sleeps fitfully that night.
In the early morning, Thomasin manages to intercept Caleb before he sets off into woods to check on traps laid the day before. She insists on coming along and since Caleb is still struggling with burgeoning sexual identity and an unhealthy attraction to his elder sibling, he agrees. The two actually manage a succesful yield of rabbits and the audience starts wonder “Hey, wasn't there a witch in this movie?” until same grey hare shows up again. Things go south when the dog chases it and is somewhat predictably killed offscreen, Caleb vanishes into the woods after the dog and Thomasin is knocked off of the suddenly wild family horse, awakening that evening.
As his sister eventually returns to the homestead, Caleb plunges deeper into the woods. He comes across a shanty, where the titular witch finally reveals herself, entrancing the young Caleb, filling his head with dark words and ensnaring him with only the greatest of temptations for a 13 year old boy.
Another awkward dinner, minus another family member, quickly collapses as Williams own lies come to light and Katherine begins to suspect her daughter's involvement with the forces that plague the family. William decides to dodge the drama by chopping more wood.
That night, Caleb shows up again, naked, raving and clearly has just got home from one hell of a party. He is taken upstairs and given only the best cure that the family can conjure in the form of bloodletting, though even these people know that he needs a proper doctor.
As Caleb's health deteriorates, the twins accuse Thomasin of witchcraft and the father has finally decided that enough is enough. He abandons the last of his stubbornness and pledges to take his family back to the village, after he salvages what he can from the rotten crops. When Caleb finally awakens, babbling and yelling, he coughs and eventually vomits up a bloodied crab apple.
Screw the doctor, this boy needs a priest.
The family attempts to pray over him, but the twins cause a ruckus, apparently possessed and unable to speak. It is left up in the air as to whether the kids are genuinely bewitched, or just faking their condition in an attempt to incriminate Thomasin. There would be truth in television if this were the case, as it was the games that the children of Salem played with adults that started the rash of paranoia that led to the witch trials. Caleb finally cries out his last, shouting out the words of Christ as he spasms. I'm kind of caught as to whether the actor provided a good performance or not during his death scene, considering it's oddity. He convulses in a manner similar to sexual ecstacy throughout, something which neither the character or the actor should have much knowledge of. Reportedly, the actor playing his father coached him through the scene using soccer metaphors.
After the death of the eldest son, the family really starts to unravel. Thomasin gets into a shouting match with William about his shortcomings as man of the house after he begins to suspect her of consorting with witches. In an effort to save herself, Thomasin shifts blame to the twins, claiming that their odd obsession with Black Philip the goat is a sign that they are actively communing with the devil, who, as we all know, is all about goats. This leads to my favourite line in the movie.
“You have entered some unholy bond with the goat!”
Hey buddy, we're on a farm out in the middle of nowhere. You have to take what you can get.
Thomasin's counter-accusation only slightly backfires when all three of them are nailed up in the shed with the goats, William finally having lost it and claiming that they will return to civilization next morning. He then spends the night alternatively begging forgiveness and chopping wood, because when you grow up in a culture that tells you masturbation is evil, you have to find a way to fill your time.
That night is the worst. Katherine awakens and wanders downstairs, seeing visions of the silver cup that had everyone so riled up, and then her two dead children. Either she is being haunted or she's lost her mind, but in any case, the mother is screwed. Her offer to breastfeed the spectral baby cuts to the children trapped in the shed, when the realize that there is something else in there with them, suckling off of the goat.
And it turns out the baby that Katherine was feeding was just a crow. So the kids are locked up in a shed with a naked Nana Addams and Mom's getting her nips pecked off by a bird. This has turned out to be a really rough weekend.
All is lost by the time the sun rises the next day. Katherine is bedridden with a bleeding chest and William wanders outside to find the shed destroyed and a shellshocked Thomasin sitting among the two slaughtered white goats. The twins are gone, so I guess the witch just...ate them or something. Any commentary he has on the scene before him is spared from us by Black Philip, who decides to just cut the crap and gore the man with his horns. William relinquishes any control on the chaos around him and allows the black goat to kill him, buried under a pile of the wood he had created. The mother comes down, loses what little restraint she has left and tries to strangle her daughter, who stabs her to death with a skinning knife in self defense.
At this point, one would think that there had to be a better way for this witch to tell these people to get off of her front lawn.
Thomasin, the last woman standing, wanders inside and collapses, deciding that she really doesn't have much to do but wait until night time, remove her blood-stained outer clothes and talk to a goat. Sleeping until night, the broken girl silently wanders back to the shed to find Black Philip waiting for her, whom she beseeches to commune with her.
And then he does.
The entire scene is shot Rosemary's Baby style, with only Thomasin in frame as she is very clearly speaking with Lucifer himself. He offers her simple prizes for her subservience, before finally offering her a simple question.
“Woulds't though like to live...deliciously?”
I swear, only The Devil himself could make that pick up line work. Thomasin strips naked and signs her name in The Devil's Book, because honestly, her whole family is dead, she's a woman in 16th century colonial New England and some sexy-voiced goat just offered her a life of supernatural indulgence. I'd take that deal.The movie ends with Thomasin wandering off into the woods to join what every pro-lifer thinks feminist support groups look like: a coven of unclothed women raving in guttural speech around a bonfire. Thomasin joins the circle and cackles in a mixture of regret and delight as the other witches rise into the air and she joins then, fulfilling her dream of becoming a flying naked lady.
I don't think I can get away with posting that here, so just try to extrapolate from this:
The VVitch is a movie that tries to get under your skin a lot more than actually scare you. The only thing even approaching a jump scare is when William is suddenly attacked by Black Philip, and I highly appreciate it for that. The movie is eerily beautiful, with artfully composed shots, droning music and uneasy performances by the dwindling cast. Special attention must be called to the accuracy of the structures, props, dialogue and costumes of the film. Eggers did a great deal of research of the period, including the supposed customs and accounts of real witchcraft, and it shows.
The ending is an interesting beast in it's own right. On one hand, the character of Thomasin has had her entire life destroyed by the machinations of witchcraft and the Devil, eventually falling and being seduced by their promises of comfort and fulfillment. On the other hand, Thomasin could also be seen as finally liberated from the repressive life of the Puritans, choosing to abandon that culture in favour of cavorting with like minded women and finding her power. The idea of a witch has often been seen as a feminist icon, originally created as a fearful look at women who have powers beyond those that men give them. Such power could never be considered to come from within, so of course, it must have come from the Devil. At the time of this film, any woman that fell outside the societal norms was suspected of witchcraft, so seeing a character (who at the beginning of the film was praying forgiveness for something simple as playing on The Sabbath) actually embrace such a title and take a measure of happiness in it is very refreshing.
Never be too afraid to walk on the wild side. Especially in the month of October.