The Witch (2016)
Set in the 1630s, the story follows a God-fearing Puritan family that is shunned from its village and forced to move to an isolated area on the edge of a New England forest. Months later, the infant son, the youngest of five children, turns up missing. The misfortune continues when crops essential to the family’s survival begin to fail. The stress of these tragedies combines with an evil menace contained in the adjacent forest to begin to destroy the fabric of the family. The eldest daughter is accused of being a witch. Things only deteriorate from there.
The Witch is not an easy film. Early advertisements suggested that it was little more than a typical “jump scare” horror flick. While there are certainly those elements throughout, it is actually akin to Stephen King classic, The Shining, or more recently, The Babadook. It is, in part, a study of paranoia, depression, and the deterioration of the family unit.
Director Robert Eggers brilliantly captures the claustrophobia, loneliness, and dread of frontier life.
Father “William” (Ralph Ineson) struggles to keep the family righted in that environment as misfortune after misfortune accrue.
His wife, “Katherine” (Kate Dickie), plays the role with a stern grimness from the get-go. As tragedy befalls, her performance darkens. Watch her eyes throughout.That’s where one will find the peril of her character.
As the plot unfolds and the family sides against the eldest daughter, “Thomasin,” Anya Taylor-Joy digs deep and provides a thorough, emotionally bleak performance.
Early in the film, Tomasin taunts two of her younger siblings by telling them that she is a “witch” in an attempt to correct their behavior. That isn’t exactly unusual, as brothers and sisters all over the world often make innocuous threats to cruelly manipulate one another.
However, as Eggers has pointed out in numerous interviews, one must not evaluate these actions through 21st Century lenses. These people are of the 1600s. The concept of the witch at that time was that it was a very real thing. A supposed embodiment of true evil. For the family to side against her, it is a heavy charge of something very possible in their eyes.
***SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD***
One interpretation of the film is that of blossoming womanhood. Early in the picture, Tomasin’s brother, “Caleb” (Harvey Scrimshaw), can notably be seen gazing at his sister’s budding breasts. She is becoming a woman.
William, as well, appears to silently acknowledge this. Though he doesn’t do or say anything untoward, there is a closeness—both physical and otherwise—between the two, seemingly informed by her maturation.
The film is strife with symbolism. One one of which is the hare.
A rabbit appears multiple times in the film. Both witchcraft and pagan beliefs recognize the hare as a symbol of fertility. In this case, the hare represents the burgeoning femininity of Tomasin. Though a quiet beast, it hops around in plain sight, both figuratively and literally, in front of the men of the house, who surely take notice.
Katherine is a hard woman, both emotionally and physically. She is a wife, mother of five, and homesteader. Her face tells all one needs to know. Life has not been easy. It has clearly taken it’s toll on her.
Tomasin is her teenage daughter. She is bright-eyed, nubile, and full of the potential that still exists for a young woman of her age.
As the film culminates with the family implosion, Tomasin engages in a fight with Katherine and kills her. Katherine, on top of her daughter, when struck by a rock, bleeds down upon her.
The blood, as it typically does, represents transformation (birth/life). Becoming a woman not only biologically (menstruation), but literally through the act of matricide.
As stated earlier, the film is complex. Amidst themes and interpretations, one must recognize that there is also an ACTUAL WITCH in the film. Played by Bathsheba Garnett, the viewer meets her early on. She resides in the forest. This monkey wrench allows the picture to be deciphered, and enjoyed, on two levels, the literal and thematic. Is this the story of blooming femininity? Is it about the collapse of the modern family? Perhaps it is merely an aboveboard movie about a cunning and depraved witch.
–Despite all the muckety-muck of analysis, this is a thoroughly SCARY picture. Granted it is a bit of a pot-boiler, it is tense and filled with a weary rage that builds to the climax.
–The movie is insanely period-correct. Clothing, building materials, and language are as authentic as possible. Chunks of dialogue were lifted directly from writings from the time. It was even shot using only candle or natural lighting.
–One warning, the accent and syntax of the dialogue can be a bit much at times. Home viewings will benefit greatly from the ability to enable subtitles.
–“Black Phillip” is perfectly cast and steals the show. He has a bright future.
This is a smart, meticulous, and disturbing film. It can be watched strictly as a well-crafted horror film…or it can be dissected in a multitude of ways on a variety of levels. It is an amazing achievement for a first-time director.
–Zep the Bear