Movie Review: The Witch (2016)
I thought it would be scarier.
It’s well-made, full of dread, fairly straightforward. We know early on that some demonic force is at work in the woods, and that’s how it plays out. Horrible things happen, people blame each other (for being in league with Satan) or themselves (for not being devout enough), but the fault lies elsewhere. God isn’t punishing them, He’s just not around. It’s like most modern horror stories: the Devil exists but God doesn’t. Or He doesn’t care. Or He isn’t as interested in getting up in our business.
What did you think of the decision to show the baby in the woods with the witch/woman/creature? It felt like a mistake to me. It was horrifying—the smooth baby belly against the sharp steel of the knife—but it actually relieved tension. We realized something was out there. We got answers. We weren’t second-guessing the family.
An American family
So how Puritan do you have to be to be excommunicated from a Puritan community for “excessive pride”? That’s what happens to William (Ralph Ineson) and his family. They wind up exiled to the land east of Eden, i.e., 17th century New England, next to a deep woods, where they praise God and raise kids. But one day, while eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peekaboo with the newborn, it suddenly disappears, and the camera pans toward the woods. The mother (Kate Dickie, “Game of Thrones”) is distraught and prays constantly, while eldest boy Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is worried about the baby’s soul—mostly because he’s worried about his own. He’s noticing sis’ budding breasts in a not exactly Puritan or brotherly manner.
Caleb is the second to disappear, also in the company of Thomasin, so the family begins to blame her—particularly since the creepy twins, Mercy and Jonas, who communicate with a black goat, accuse her of being a witch. She accuses them back since who else communicates with a black goat? The father’s solution is to board both up in the barn for the night. Smart move, Daddyo. A witch appears out of the back end of the goat—a great, creepy special effect, by the way, the best in the movie—and in the morning, the goats are skinned, the barn razed, the twins poof. Thomasin, once again, is the last one standing. Even as she’s sprawled on the ground.
What writer-director Robert Eggers is particularly good at is visiting violence out of nowhere. William is berating/beating Thomasin when—pow!—he’s struck by ... wait for it ... the black goat. More than struck: gored. Then pummeled and buried beneath the wood he’s been chopping for the entire movie. We’ve been watching him digging his own grave. Thomasin, horrified, is then violently yanked by ... wait for it ... the mother, the last surviving member of the family, who of course blames the daughter. By this point, I would, too. It’s only logical.
Diaboli ex machina
Question: Is she to blame? That evening, after Thomasin kills her mother in self-defense, the Devil, or a demon, gets her to sign away her soul, strip, and join other naked women/witches in the woods. Chanting around a fire, they begin to dance and levitate. Thomasin does, too, laughing. She’s one of them now. She’s got a new family.
So was that the plan from the get-go? Thomasin? Was the rest of the family just in the way?
“The Witch,” supposedly culled from historical records/accusations, is a good primer into 17th century New England. It’s also another lesson in scapegoating. External forces act upon the family and they blame each other or themselves for falling out of favor with God. They pray more fervently to God but someone else answers. It’s interesting. For the longest time, drama relied upon the deus ex machina, but we’ve bid adieu to deus. Now it’s diaboli ex machina. The Devil solves all dramatic problems.