A tale of unraveling conflicts inside an already dysfunctional family, The Witch brings back the old-fashioned taste of asmospheric horror.
The Witch: A New-England Folktale is written and directed by first time director Robert Eggers. After battling several problems regarding the film’s eerie theme, historical context and shooting location, Eggers and co. finally finished his directorial debut, the main subject of which is about witches (his favorite area of knowledge since childhood) and the horror they bestow upon a farmer family. It opened at Sundance Film Festival in January 2015 then was distributed by the home of indie – A24, in February 2016.
The movie brings us to the circa-1600s era in a town of New England where a man named William (Ralph Ineson) is exiled from his home on a Puritan plantation by the church due to a vaguely explained reason concerning contradiction in acts of faith. The poor family consists of his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), oldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the twins – Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). William leads them far away to the edge of the woods and starts themselves a new life there.
After the fifth child Samuel (Auxtun Henry Dube/Athan Conrad Dube) is born, their family faces even more severe predicaments as the crops fail and the unsettling fear of an unknown witch lurking the forest starts creeping on them (and the audience). One day, baby Sam is mysteriously taken away while Thomasin is playing around with him. We are then trail-blazed by Eggers through a haunting tale of how this family was torn apart by internal conflicts as well as an outside force of unknown paranormal entities.
Despite all the hardships in changing the main location from New England to some place “off-the-chart” in Canada, Eggers managed to establish an exquisitely arranged environment for his passion project. The whole movie is nowhere near vibrant tones but instead, looks pale and dreary with a murky sky and withering crops, giving off a depressing vibe on the story. The whole atmosphere reeks of wickedness and indescribable foreboding. Once sunk in their situation among this vast wilderness, the audience immediately feels a need to take caution everywhere our characters take a step. This slow burn movie is quite successful in the first stage of tone setting, and it moves straightforward to an important plot point: the witch is real, not some metaphorical figure for any subtext.
The first act of evil she commits in this movie could be excessively traumatizing to the audience, as the witch is shown holding a knife next to the wee baby Samuel, and the movie skips to when she rubs his blood and fat as flying ointment onto her body. Just purely nightmare-fueled, the scene initially sets a dark overtone to ensure us about her existence. However, this witch only plays a side role to the real tragic drama depicted here as the family is, day by day, twisted in a tangle of religious doubt, pitiful nostalgia, betrayal, and self-righteousness.
At the center of this story, the characters are shrewdly fleshed out for us to really feel what is going on in their minds. Banished from the settlement, William is full of hope in the beginning scene when they all hold hands together in graceful love for God and a belief to grow stronger through this storm. He even reminds Caleb in a hunt:”We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.” Yet as the story unravels through every slight, timely push from the witch(es), this family’s background is not quite what it seems.
By putting the normal people in the spotlight, director Eggers explored the dark corners of various human psyches that could probably never be turned inside out if not for one touch of evil at first. Thomasin, the breakout role of Taylor-Joy, is portrayed as a dedicated first child and the one who is supposed to be the strong female protagonist we would root for. However, she is also a daughter under a lot of pressure as Thomasin must take on her role of ‘the third adult’ in her house; thus, she might sometimes feel taken for granted.
After the disappearance of Sam, her mother starts to bear an unreasonable grudge against her, and this quarrel is later worsened when Katherine discovered that her dowry, the silver cup gifted from her father back in England, has gone missing. Not only does Thomasin have to cope with her mother’s unreasonable scrutiny but she also faces hostility and childish annoyance from the twins. They disobey Thomasin on simple daily chores, and the naughty Mercy even goes all the way to mocking about Thomasin using witchcraft on poor Samuel. Jonas and Mercy are depicted as somewhat the intermediate between evil and this family, as they spend most of their days fooling around and singing a creepy song about Black Phillips, the black male goat.
We couldn’t leave out the father, William, as he is the one who puts his whole family in the situation for being too imperious to the church about his interpretation of holiness. Prior to Katherine’s allegation of Thomasin stealing her cup, it is revealed that William traded it for a gun behind his wife’s back. The greatest sin William commits from the start stems from his pride and self-righteousness as he thinks the situation is all under his control, and if not, he would go to any length to cover up for his mistakes and to do right by his own will. Hence, William is awfully arrogant and stubborn to realize the situation has gone wrong. Not until it is too late does he decide to come back to the old town and ask for help. He can neither see through the cup’s material value nor acknowledge its spiritual significance to his wife, as it is the only thing left for Katherine to reminisce about the good old days of wealth and happiness. His stiff-necked presumption consumes him and William is left with only despair and remorse in that scene when he confesses all of his sins to his God. The sequence, shot from an angle behind him to the right, is extraordinarily and pathetically heartbreaking, which can arguably rival Choi Minsik’s performance in Oldboy’s last act. A remarkable detail here is that Will is not a cruel dictator figure but a genuinely caring and responsible husband and father who is crushed under his overly masculine manipulation, both literally and figuratively.
In addition, the mother Katherine is rendered in the image of a bland, aging woman who has an aversion to her daughter, possibly due to the envy for Thomasin’s youth and beauty of a blooming young lass. She desperately clings onto her old memories like a graphically sexual vision of God’s love for her in her first years of marriage, and audience would not forget the horrific nightmare sequence when her silver cup appears first and foremost, before the brief “reunion” with her two precious sons. The conflict between Thomasin and the twins is also pushed further by no other than their mother, leaving the young girl more isolated, distanced with an inkling of being betrayed by the family she has been fully committing herself to.
And last but not least, the young boy Caleb suffers mostly from his maturing process as he starts to question the nature of human sins inside oneself while secretly being attracted to his sister’s feminine body on more than one occasion. On the journey into manhood, he tries to prove his value to his father and that alone leads to his strange confrontation with a witch (in her younger form). His disappearance adds fuel to the already raging fire in his family about Thomasin’s involvement with The Book of Satan. The religious aspect, especially the existence of The Devil himself, weighs in on this convolution as the family members constantly doubt their own faith in God’s Grace. The sequence of Caleb’s exorcism is unnerving and far too disturbing to overlook, as the images of Caleb’s misery shifts to ecstasy. The symbolic appearance of a red apple momentously proves to be ambiguous enough for more than one interpretation. Did he truly see a blessing notion of Jesus Christ (based on his euphorically content expression before passing away) or is it just the witch poking fun at God’s words (as Katherine states that the Devil may also speak of Scripture)?
Despite the backlash from mainstream audience, The Witch still receives praise for an amazing performance by its surprisingly talented emsemble of cast, accompanied by the harmonic synergy of Jarin Blaschke’s breathtaking cinematography and a haunting score by Mark Korven. Robert Eggers has succeeded in translating his script to the big screen through masterful storytelling techniques, such as the long takes for building up tension or even (supposedly) regular scenes like one during a family dinner with impressive lighting and blocking. We can spot Eggers’ intentional tweaks of archetypes from folktales like the twins crossing path with a witch (Hansel and Gretel) or the young damsel in a red cowl (Red Riding Hood). The feel of sinister writhes throughout the film as we, as observers, are forced to imagine what happen off-screen during Samuel’s gory death or Caleb’s ordeal in the seducing hands of the witch.
All are intensified to a point where Thomasin feels so exhausted from all the sufferings that she decides to speak with a goat. Yes, a goat.
After the scene goes black for a brief moment, she is shown to be corrupted and has accepted her impending fate hinted from the beginning. The ending is perfectly executed with Thomasin expressing her sign of relief, satisfaction, and calm bliss as the family who treated her with hypocrisy is now gone forever. Embracing Satan seems to be the only way out. ‘Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?’, whispers the mysterious figure transcending from Black Phillips.
This movie brought back the old-fashioned taste of asmospheric horror, which might seem to be outdated at first sight. However, if you approach The Witch expecting a tale of gradually unraveling conflicts inside an already dysfunctional family, with the continual intervention of a fearful force in the form of demonic creatures, you might very well enjoy the experience. After watching it, take a while to figure out the correspondence between these family members’ sins and their fates, and you may find its plot even more horrifying.
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