The Witch (2016)
Written & Directed by Robert Eggers
In the 1630s, a man named William and his family are exiled from his Puritan plantation after he is found guilty of promoting an alternative view of accepted Christianity. After traveling through the wilderness, the family settles on a remote plot of land on the edge of the woods. While playing with the baby of the family, eldest daughter Thomasin suddenly loses him to an unseen force in those woods. She’s met with suspicion by her mother and William is driven further into desperation. The crops rot on the stalk, the goat is only giving blood, and there is a malevolent air about the land. The eldest son, Caleb strikes upon a plan to venture into the woods to gather rabbits from traps so that the family can sustain themselves with some bit of food, but this journey will damn his entire family.
The Witch announces itself as a work of extreme importance from its first ten minutes. Robert Eggers emerged a director of such powerful craft who delivers a work that is both superb on a technical level (production design, costumes, music, dialogue) and thematically complex. The Witch is a horror film that refuses to unfold in the way we expect. Early in the movie, Eggers shows us the titular Witch, and the audience views her performing a horrific task. There’s never any doubt that a witch is menacing the family, so the film becomes less about the mystery of the horror and more about the degradation of this family.
The patriarch is the focus of much blame by his wife and family, for refusing to bend and resulting in their banishment. We never learn the specifics of William’s dogma, but he never appears to be a strong figure in his domesticity. He lies to the wife about selling a silver wine cup, the last remnant she has of her late father. William even allows Caleb to lie about their failed hunting expedition in the forest. When the father finally does decide to show some sense of authority, it is too late, and the madness has taken all his family and himself.
Thomasin is as close as the film gets to a protagonist, she is of an age where she could be handed off to a wealthier family as a servant girl, taking the pressure off of her parents to feed and clothe her. She also becomes an object of subtle lust to her brother Caleb, another emphasis on the isolation their father has forced upon them. One of the most jarring aspects of the film is the context of the belief that adults in this time have. The slightest condemnation of a person as a witch is met with little skepticism. It’s obvious William doesn’t want to see Thomasin as a practitioner of the dark arts and to save her skin, Thomasin calls out the twins, Mercy, and Jonas for consorting with the goat Black Phillip.
Eggers understands that good horror should be steeped, slowly allowed to boil over. This is why the paranoid family dynamics are the real horror, and the witch is secondary. In fact, the Witch has only to push the family towards the edge, and they do the rest of the work themselves. There are no jumpscares that we’ve become accustomed to and instead a pace of life that feels of the period. Eggers did meticulous research, so that much of the dialogue used is taken from prayers and letters written in the 1600s. Authenticity is what pulls us in deeper into a world foreign and familiar.
There was some disagreement about Thomasin’s smooth conversion to the powers of the devil in the film’s conclusion, but I think the signs were always there. She is shown to have doubt during her father’s trial with just a subtle glance when they have issued their verdict. Thomasin’s fight with Mercy on the shores of the river reveal even more of her inner world, using the fear of the witch to frighten her sister away. So when everything has fallen apart, and Thomasin has been driven to the brink of sanity her next step into the arms of Black Phillip feels as if it was inevitable.