Let’s face it, the Puritans are/were pretty awful. As Ronald Hutton says, they ruined all our fun. Robert Eggers’ excellent debut film The Witch features a Puritan family in seventeenth-century (complete with awesome seventeenth-century dialogue!) rural America, who, after being exiled from their plantation for religious extremism, live on the edge of the wilderness, where they are terrorised by a malevolent witch. Eggers clearly establishes the witch as a real figure early in the film, showing her kidnap the family baby in the first fifteen minutes for unspeakable rites. It is interesting that he is so direct and explicit about this, perhaps to draw his audience into what it actually felt like to feel that these witches were feel and they are virtually ineffective and defenceless to prevent it. He draws from actual reported seventeenth-century accounts of witchcraft, featuring familiars, Satanic goats (Black Philip, one of my favourite characters), and featuring shape-shifting, demonic possession, and the sabbath.
While this all sounds familiar, the film is actually very much a revisionist film (not too dissimilar to some of the ideas about the witch being misrepresented and actually a figure for good and elemental worship that ParaNorman explores). The malevolent witch is everything that these early Modern Puritans feared and hated about the witch, but the family’s eldest daughter Thomasin (played superbly by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy) arguably possesses aspects of witchcraft. Earlier in the film, she tells her youngest sister that she is a witch and will eat her flesh and her little sister actually believes her to be one. Thomasin just wants to live, however, and her overbearing and repressed upbringing leads her to explore her sexuality. The Puritan climate is stifling and restrictive to her, so her natural response is to rebel against it. In many ways this film is also about empowering her voice and finding that freedom, providing a key feminist reading of the story.
Is it terrifying? Yes, it is, mainly because you’re put in the forest with a malevolent entity whom you don’t know what they’re capable of. If they’re willing to kill children, what will they do to you? Of course, this isn’t really an accurate representation of witches – witches are nothing like that, and are more akin to Thomasin’s coming-of-age transformation into her own self and womanhood. The whole film is thrilling, but I really enjoyed the final few scenes where she is free from the shackles of her Puritanical upbringing and can actually live. It is a shame, however, that her whole family had to die in the process, and we are never clear of the malevolent witch’s motives, since the story is only told from the family’s perspective.
For some, it may seem a slow burner (I actually thought it was super exciting the whole way through, especially with the increasingly erratic circumstances that occur), but this is also about a family on the edge, suffering from grief (the mother cries every five minutes, but with all her unhappiness and paranoia, one wonders if she would be crying anyway even if the baby hadn’t disappeared). As the story progresses and they become more suspicious of each other, they become more delusional, more unhinged. Accusations fly, and they become more desperate and dependent on Christ. But there is no Christ here – this is a godless land. It’s time to believe in the potential of oneself rather than humility and self-doubt. Christianity will not save you from your fate. I don’t think Eggers is condemning religion here, but he’s definitely not endorsing it either.
While I would have liked to have seen a more positive representation of the witch (although we do see it with Thomasin in many ways) and the forest (particularly with rising issues in today’s environmentalism), Eggers forces us to confront a darker side of our past and within ourselves, and I think he succeeds. The incredible cinematography, the looming, eerie shapes and sounds, provide a deeply unsettling atmosphere, and I was so fortunate to catch it in Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema, which I strongly recommend visiting. This is cinema at its finest – cinema as it’s meant to be seen. The also excellent film The Devils may come to mind with regards to the striking visuals and compelling supernatural storyline, but this is a very different film. The Witch is one of the best horror films in ages, and a real treat if you can watch it. I strongly recommend it.