Live Deliciously With The Witch

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Last year around this time I really enjoyed It Follows, despite not fully being able to articulate the themes it is built on at the time. It took an extended discussion and a rewatch months later for me to wrap my head around the film in a satisfactory way, a fate that will certainly also befall The Witch this year. Writer/director Robert Eggers’ debut is a film that is undoubtedly thematic in its construction and execution, but not in a way I can easily summarize just yet. What I can say with certainty though is that like It Follows before it, The Witch is intense as hell and a very engrossing watch, whether you “get it” or not.

SPOILERS

The Witch takes place in 1630 and follows a pilgrim family that has been exiled from their community due to the father William’s extreme views on the Gospels. The family goes out into the wilderness on their own and attempt to make a life for themselves. But soon the family becomes beset by failure and tragedy, as their crops die and their infant son vanishes, and it becomes clear there is a dark force preying on them. The question they ask themselves is whether that darkness comes from the wood… or from within their own home. As you can imagine, the general beats of the plot play into the usual witch hunt/McCarthyism arc that we’ve seen before, but in this case it seems that Eggers has mixed in some additional commentary about gender and the alienating effects of extremism.

Perhaps the fact that the women get the short end of the stick in the world of The Witch isn’t too surprising, especially given the time and place in which the film is set. But the film nevertheless does a good job of establishing not only the presumption of guilt in young women but the antagonism between women and the prideful presumptuousness of men. There’s enough nuance in the execution of this dynamic to make it interesting: the targeting of eldest daughter Thomasin, for example, is less overtly slut-shaming than I might have guessed, and William’s pride doesn’t make him a completely entitled asshole. A big part of this stems from the characterization of the mother, which illustrates how a woman born into a male-dominated world might be conditioned to blame her daughter for ill fortune before questioning her husband, despite that husband’s obvious failings.

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It’s also interesting to show not just how extremism and paranoia can drive people against each other but how that antagonism can drive people away from the very cause trying to “protect” them. The final fate of Thomasin speaks to this, as after her family tears itself apart and leaves her abandoned and bloodied, she finds herself exploring the very thing the family feared. In the end, the family’s fear turned them into such monsters that the creatures in the woods don’t seem so awful by comparison. This is a challenging and intriguing area of the film, and certainly the one I was most fascinated by, and yet I was still put off by it due to context.

What muddies the waters for me in my first viewing is how the very presence of an actual witch sort of undercuts some of these themes. The insane paranoia of the family is infuriating not because it is baseless but because it is directed towards the wrong people. The fact that the supernatural threat they fear is real makes it a little more understandable. Furthermore, while the structure of the film would suggest Thomasin’s arc should be an empowering movement towards independence, the context of the witch’s awful actions makes that harder to swallow. Of course it is very possible that this off-putting contradiction is part of Eggers’ overall thematic point, but I couldn’t say for sure just yet.

The reason why I haven’t fully been able to nail down the themes of The Witch is the exact reason I would still call it a successful (and rewatchable) film: because of how immersively intense it is. Eggers brilliantly builds the mood and tone of the story, quietly ratcheting the tension tighter and tighter until the bottom has fallen out of your stomach and your arms and legs feel like they’re about to snap like rubber bands. This more than anything makes the film intensely viewable, even as it probably distracted me from fully engaging with the themes. But when the overall craft is so engaging it’s hard to be disappointed by missing the theme on a first pass.

For me, The Witch is a film that is so unsettling and disturbing in an indefinable fashion that it can sometimes overwhelms the themes woven into its story. But while the themes might not have been immediately clear to me, there’s no doubt that there is a ton of depth lurking behind the seemingly-effortless craft. And ultimately, when a horror film can be this effectively thrilling and emotionally upsetting, how could I call it anything more than a success.

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