Horror is the most of-the-moment genre out there: by its nature it makes itself a time capsule, simultaneously responding to gut-level fears in its surrounding culture and almost always reinforcing an Other vs. status quo arrangement. You can tell a culture’s history in no small part by the stories it weaves to scare itself. Which might explain the chilly reception The Witch received at my late-Sunday viewing: the audience (if I might grossly simplify by what I overheard) was prepared for a visceral emotional experience that would speak to them, and were thus at a loss for how to respond to a colonial-era pastiche of fairytales that was far more interested in examining its characters’ era-appropriate fears than mapping them onto modern ones.
Yes, I am undoubtedly late to the party on this one: The Witch had its debut at Sundance back in 2015, whereupon it had time to get really popular, have a backlash claiming it wasn’t actually all that great, and then a counter-backlash (which I suppose is where we are now). And even now, it’s still just on the cusp of making it to VOD where everyone can have access to it. Which leaves the film in a weird dead zone where just about all the major outlets have had their say even though only a relatively small percentage of people have had a chance to see the thing. Fitting, perhaps, for a movie that both draws so heavily from tradition and established folklore while also demanding that the audience take it on its own terms. While I can recommend seeing it to anyone who enjoys slow burn character studies that wear horror mainly as a means for exploring metaphors (we’ll return to other movies in this vein next week), actually discussing it has proven a far more slippery affair.
The plot (which I have avoided up to now, for the tension of surprise benefits a first viewing enormously) is thus: in 1630s England, a man named William is thrown out of the collective plantation for his religious extremism (which, if you have read any Hawthorne, you’ll know is saying something); he takes his family to live out on the edge of the woods, where they’re eking out a very meager living. One day, the family’s youngest child Samuel is snatched away in a literal blink from under the watch of teenage daughter Thomasin, and while William blames a wolf we catch sight of a rather more purposeful, if no less gory, fate for the baby at the hands of the witch of the woods. That explosive event opens the film, but we’re ultimately there to watch the slow decaying fallout, as Thomasin’s mother Katherine falls apart from grief and only barely hides how she hates and blames her daughter for the loss of her son and William tries to hide the fact that the family’s exile will most likely lead to them starving during the upcoming winter.
Amidst all of that, the grisly portents of supposed witchcraft are almost set dressing for a great deal of the film, icons of fear that nudge the family further into destroying one another with little need for supernatural aid. In fact, even with the grisly opening scene there’s plenty of room to argue that this falls under the umbrella of “the supernatural is purely psychological.” Which leaves us with the question of what the movie wants us, the modern audience, to be afraid of, if not baby-eating wood witches. And that, in fairness, is a very good question.
The story exists in its own little bubble, using not just period dialogue (a title card before the credits notes that much of the script was taken from historical accounts) but period logic as well. The Calvinism that underpins Williams’ belief and powers a great deal of the family’s fears is only briefly touched upon, and yet that terror of inevitable damnation is as much a lurking terror as the witch; the griefs and suspicions of the characters are almost inexorably tied to the 17th century in which they live. If most horror becomes a time capsule, then this film is like digging one up. That’s not to say there’s nothing to be taken from the film – that’s quite impossible, given that it was made in the modern day with modern sensibilities, whatever the source material.
As much as a person could apply The Crucible’s anti-McCarthyism message (itself a modern inflection on a period piece) to modern political pursuits, so too does this film offer its share of thematic applicability: there’s no escaping the symbolism of witches as boogeymen of female sexuality and all the commentary that has come from that, and there’s one particularly fascinating scene dealing with the sublimation of eroticism into Christ as a figure of adoration; the demon of the patriarchy looms large over the film as well, casting a particularly interesting shade in tandem with the “witch” element about women being turned against one another for male approval. But those interpretation prove uniquely slippery, always with an element that doesn’t quite fit or demands to be cobbled with some undermining element, until one is back looking at the thing on its own terms again.
That’s not to say the film is necessarily cold. The acting is accomplished, with Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as Thomasin a particular stand out. They take every opportunity to reach out to us with the humanity of the characters beneath the period-trappings, planting feet firmly in the realm of evocative character drama where it dances around being a traditional horror film. It’s the biggest key in making the tension work, above and beyond the relative subtlety of the horror elements: while most dramas involving religious paranoia would be content to paint with a broad brush, the script here is more layered; everyone suffers and has their small humanities even as they ultimately drag one another down. For that alone it’s a worthwhile view.
For a long while the film proceeds as something close to an ensemble piece, examining how each member of the family breaks down and then peeling that element away to take us one step closer to poor survivor Thomasin. It’s an intensely effective structure that gives each actor their due while also whittling down the cast, and the film’s one major failing is in abandoning it in the last twenty minutes or so, switching to a structure that favors Thomasin as the protagonist against the remaining antagonists rather than as a sole survivor affected by all that has come before. That the film ends up in the same place it had otherwise, more or less, been heading before this shift (but getting their faster and at the expense of giving some of the characters their full due as had been set up) keeps the film from going off the rails and instead bumps it down from “great” to “good.”
The Witch is a strange thing to recommend: likely too gruesome and visceral in some of its imagery for viewers who don’t enjoy horror, too slow and cerebral for viewers looking for a more visceral (equally valid, but wholly different) experience, and destined to be just a little disappointing by how close it brushes to absolute greatness. It’s the kind of film one appreciates at arm’s length, made from birth to be studied while saving itself from being overly cold or dull with its strong cast. If ever a film replicated the experience of studying a horror film, this one is it.