The Witch (2016)

Directed by Robert Eggers

the-witch-movie-review

The Witch is about, well it’s about a witch, but it’s really about the family terrorized by the witch and the way they turn on each other.  The film presents a bleak landscape bathed in blue.  The world feels barren and lonely, like everything that isn’t your blood is trying to kill you.

We follow a family as they are forced out of a community based on religious differences, to a degree.  William, the father, interprets the bible differently than the rest of the community.  He and his wife and children are devout Christians, and they pray as often as you’d guess scared people pray in the 1600s.  They try to make a life for themselves in a small clearing on the edge of a forest, growing corn and using that corn to trade for more goods.  Right away, though, things don’t come easy.

The corn doesn’t grow well, as if the land is trying to force the family away like they’re leeches, and there always feels to be a general tension in the air, partially because we meet them after they are made enemies but the community to which they once belonged.

One day, the eldest child, a girl named Thomasin, watches her infant baby Samuel.  She plays hide and go seek, and Samuel vanishes out of thin air.

The family is distraught, as you might imagine.  William tries looking for the child, but after a certain point he has to give up, realizing the baby has no chance of survival.  The audience gets to see what happened, though.  There is an old, ugly looking woman who we know must be the witch.  She takes the baby and kills him.

The family begins to turn on themselves.  In one scene, Thomasin washes clothes along the river alongside her brother Caleb and the younger siblings, twins named Jonas and Mercy.  Mercy begins to act out, and Thomasin can only shut her up by scaring her.  She pretends to be the witch and claims responsibility of Samuel’s disappearance.  This terrifies Mercy.

Later, Katherine blames Thomasin for the boy’s disappearance.  This is a slippery slope, and it pushes the rest of the story in motion.  After Samuel’s disappearance, there was a question of how the family would deal with this going forward.  Once Katherine blames Thomasin, there is no going back.  As we see, this idea infects Katherine, and try as she might, she will never see any other method of coping other than to blame her eldest daughter.

Things escalate when Caleb makes a plan to hunt in the woods alone.  Thomasin makes him take her, and while out, their dog chases after a hare, frightening the horse Thomasin rides and knocking her unconscious.  Caleb runs after his dog, and finds him slaughtered.  Then he stumbles across the witch’s hut.  The witch seduces him and takes him in, leading you to believe he is dead.

Thomasin wakes up and staggers home where Katherine continues to blame Thomasin, this time for Caleb’s disappearance.  That night, Thomasin finds Caleb naked outside, weak and delirious.  They bring him inside, and later Caleb dies while proclaiming his love of Christ after first screaming out in pain.  It’s clear there is something unnatural going on, and when the family desperately tries to pray for him, the twins forget the Lord’s Prayer (a sign of evil) before following into seizures.  Before the seizures, the twins accused Thomasin of being a witch.

Thomasin is confronter by William about the possibility of her being a witch.  Katherine believes it, and William seems to believe it too.  Thomasin, though, points out that the children were talking to Black Phillip, their sheep, and said he communicated with them.  Unsure of who is responsible and who is in danger, William locks his three remaining children in a hut for the night with the goat.  That night, the twins wake up and see the old, ugly naked witch feeding on the goat.  We cross-cut with this scene and Katherine’s vision of her dead children come back to life.  She breast feeds them, and we see that she is really breastfeeding a raven.

The next morning, William comes outside to see the kids’ hut damaged and the white goat disemboweled.  The twins are missing and there is blood on Thomasin’s hands.  William is then suddenly impaled by Black Philip, killing him.  Katherine comes outside, sees the scene and assumes Thomasin is responsible.  She attacks her daughter who defends herself with a knife, slashing Katherine’s face.  Katherine doubles down and continues to try to strangle her daughter, and Thomasin lashes at her mother again, killing her.

After falling asleep in the hut, Thomasin awakens at night and approaches Black Phillip, believing him to be the devil.  She asks what he wants, and to her (and my) surprise, he responds.  He makes her sign a book and turns her into a witch.  She wanders off naked into the forest where there is a bonfire and a series of other naked women, howling.  She joins them, and they float up into the sky.

This movie was incredibly tense and well-made.  The tone is clear, the movie remains on point, and the story is frightening and dreadful.  Eggers does a good job of creating this atmosphere by taking his time and staying away from cheap jump scares.  The silence is just as terrifying as any other element of the film, so there is a lot of it.

It might also just be that I get scared easily, but I thought this was a really good film, at least until the last 20-30 minutes.  Now, the end of this film isn’t bad by any means, but it feels like a letdown.  I think a lot of horror films suffer from bad third acts.  A lot of films in this genre are burdened with very exciting premises, but it’s oftentimes easier to raise a question than to answer it.  So here, you have the idea of witches, but the film is really about the way the family turns on itself.  The parents are sure that they’re being punished, and the combination of what happens to them plus their confidence that they are being punished, presents a very engaging conflict.  The more they are torn apart, the more they tear themselves apart.  This film feels like a declaration against organized religion, but I also think it’s an observation of where people were at in this time period.  What are the stories we tell ourselves to deal with the pain in our lives?

The events of this film are all very dramatic and absurd, but I think that’s the basic question.  Does the family’s faith help them or make things worse?  Praying for the dead is one thing, but accusing your daughter of communion with the devil is another.

So the dramatic premise, of the family potentially turning in on itself, is engaging, and it ends with the daughter murdering her mother.  It feels rushed through.  The whole time, Thomasin is subject to her parents’ authority.  They could kill her or sentence her to death, but in the end her dad is killed by the goat, and she kills her mother in self-defense.  It never felt like she had to make a substantial decision.  Instead, they were made for her.

In the end, she had nothing to turn to, so she willfully turned to the devil, which I suppose is a choice on the part of the director.  Thomasin doesn’t have to willfully give herself over, yet she does because everything around her has been burned to the ground.  I suppose becoming a witch is the only way she can survive, though it’d seem like she could try to venture back to the community from which they departed to start the film.  It’s fine, is what I’m saying, but not particularly insightful or exciting or noteworthy.

I will say that it feels unorthodox for the climax of a horror film to take place in broad daylight, as is does here.  Maybe that’s why the film felt so underwhelming in the end.  The parents are murdered quickly and somewhat quietly.  Maybe it’s wrong to expect a big, terrifying showdown, and maybe that disappointment is more influenced by my familiarity with other movies than with anything to do with this story.

The most tense and frightening scene is the one before the parents are killed, when Katherine speaks to her dead children and when the kids see the witch outside.  I suppose this might have been the climax of the film, but neither Thomasin nor William, the two most active and important characters to the story, do anything.  In fact, both of them remain asleep while Katherine and the twins have to deal with the terror.  I guess this just demonstrates how Katherine and the twins might be the real danger, with William and Thomasin to suffer their wrath.

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