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Review by Joshua Gibbs
Long time readers of this website will have no problem predicting where a review of this film was apt to begin.
“Let us not neglect meeting together…” as St. Paul teaches.
“…ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is…” as the blessed Jeremiah teaches.
Either of these verses ought to do for The Witch. However, discerning minds what to know: What if those we’re “meeting together” with are no longer interested in the ancient paths? Can we neglect them then?
In a 17th century New England Puritan colony, the ashen William (Ralph Ineson paying for all the wicked fun he had as Chris Finch in The Office) stands accused of “prideful conceit” by a council of grim faced beards. He maintains his integrity, refuses to confess his schismatic beliefs, and politely quits the settlement with his wife and five children.
The film never clarifies what point of theology or politics William is so stuck on that, to avoid rescinding his controversial claims, he is willing to move his family out of the middle nowhere into the even more middler of nowhere. Consequently, we don’t know if William is breaking the aforementioned rule of St. Paul, or if he is— contra mundum— honoring Jeremiah by asking for the ancient paths, willing to seek them out all by his lonesome.
William & Co. homestead in the wilderness, plant crops, make the best of it. Quickly thereafter, their infant child Samuel disappears under bizarre circumstances. The teenaged Thomasin is playing peekaboo with the baby, and in the blink of an eye, the child disappears. Thomasin is loathe to forthrightly describe the circumstances of the child’s disappearance to her parents, for the infant lays in an open field and vanishes in the span of a single second— no trace. More pious parents would assume an angel had scooped up the child— and delivered him to glory a la Elijah— for no other possibility is reasonable.
William’s family does not suspect an angel, but a demon. The young William had not yet been baptized, because no assembly had been present to baptize the boy with authority. On a hunting trip with his nearly adolescent son Caleb, William listens to the boy confess his fear that Samuel is dead and burning in hell because he died unwashed. William is unwilling to dismiss the boy’s fear out of hand, but neither is he readily willing to accept it.
Prior to this hunting trip, though, we see an old nude woman holding the infant Samuel, lightly running a knife over his little body. We see the old woman chopping up juicy, bloody meat and rubbing the blood over her breasts. We see her bathing in a stream. Some seven days after my initial viewing of the film, I am not certain any of what we see here needs be real.
The real horror of The Witch is not this loss of life, or the loss of life which follows for an hour. Do not fear those who can destroy the body; fear Him who can cast body and soul into Hell. Visions of a demoniac chopping up a little baby may be viewed as part of the narrative, or such visions may merely represent the fears of William’s family. Both Caleb and his mother Katherine fear Samuel is in hell, and so we are shown hellish images of the child being torn apart.
The god which William and his family serve is apt to condemn little infants to eternal torture, and the bitterness which grows in William and Katherine against such a god quickly ferments into a rich strife where mutual accusation is the rule. William and his kin have lost a child, but truth be told, any family which embraces such a diseased opposition to the omnibenevolence of God has laid itself bare to similar horrors. The scenes wherein The Witch “destroys” the child are so shrouded, so shadowy, we are never sure Samuel is actually dead. The knife which the old crone runs over the child’s body seems aimed at his genitals, and for most of the film I imagined she was some pious, albeit zany exile from the same Puritan community who had stolen the child away to circumcise him. These are all characters touched by some madness— who could say whether the bloodbath the hag gives herself wasn’t some excusable sacrament of desire (and merely rabbit meat) conducted in the bizarre gothic spirit of Flannery O’Connor, a la “The Temple of the Holy Spirit”? Things fall apart so rapidly for William after the disappearance of his son— and really, the family is on the cusp of starvation just prior to his loss— it may be better to view little Samuel as having been spared. Perhaps little-Samuel-in-Hell is actually little-Samuel-in-Abraham’s-bosom and his family is in hell, condemning God and starving in exile.
After Thomasin overhears her parents discuss sending her off to a wealthy family for a maid, the girl and Caleb make for the forest to hunt, but are separated. Evening falls and Caleb is yet lost in the woods. He sees a small a cottage with a smoking chimney, and as he approaches, a lusty young woman appears in the doorway, beckons him near and kisses him deeply, but the scene ends startlingly. Caleb is gone for more than a day, and during this time his family counts him dead, but then he shows up again on the farm, unclothed and not in his right mind. Why The Witch would kill Samuel but return Caleb remains an open-ended question, though I think this also points to the first images of The Witch occurring only in the imagination of the characters. Where Samuel is, who can say? Spirited away in a fiery chariot, as far as I am concerned.
Director Robert Eggers is happy to leave the fate of Samuel up to viewers, and with a little finagling, the fate of Caleb is explainable by natural means. Early in the film, Caleb tells his father he has seen an apple tree and then leads his father on a fruitless endeavor to find it. When Caleb returns to the family later, he is wet, shivering, delusional, either hexed or hypothermic. Surrounded by his family, Caleb coughs up a whole apple, quotes a few lines from the Song of Songs, then expires. A little digging around online reveals Caleb wouldn’t be the first 17th century New Englander attacked by a jinxed apple to the esophagus, and the director alleges four years of research went into the crafting of the script. Already primed to see curses, the family view Caleb’s death as a conjured thing, and blame falls on Thomasin, who is accused of sorcery by her bratty twin siblings, Mercy and Jonas.
While Eggers suggests early on that the whole witchy affair might be nothing more than the hocus pocus of evil imaginations and religious delusion, he is no materialist and the film finishes firmly in the realm of the supernatural. However, demons do not beset men unless they are invited to do so. Nearly everything in the film is explainable through rational, logical means— the face of the devil Rorschached onto a piece of toast— until the closing, when Thomasin asks for a meeting with the devil and he obliges. Alone in the barn with Black Phillip the goat, Thomasin says, “Black Phillip, I conjure thee to speak to me. Speak as thou dost speak to Jonas and Mercy. Dost thou understand my English tongue? Answer me.” The film hangs in the balance of silence which ensues. If there is only silence, Richard Dawkins can applaud. But when a calm, deep, hissing voice replies, “What does thou want?” I believe a new figure has at last entered the film. The spook of the finale is little like the spook which comes before it. What begins with a corrupt theology that inspires skepticism against God’s goodness ends in a request for a seducer in spurs to bring sensual pleasure. The film circles around the question of Paul or Jeremiah a few times in the second act, but by the third, our fears are somehow confirmed that William has not sought out the ancient paths, but his own. Without a community to support him, William’s conceit brought madness. Without a family to support her, Thomasin also goes mad; Thomasin’s betrayal of God in the film’s close is simply William’s betrayal of the church writ large.
Viewers of the film have every right to object that this reading fails to account for everything that happens in the film, and I will gladly grant this point. What of the nude figure who appears the night Thomasin and the twins spend in the barn? What of the bird devouring Katherine’s arm? Great horror films generally resist tight interpretations, though. That’s not to say that any one interpretation is as good as another, but since the time of Sophocles, the spectators of horror have had to sift through competing images and competing claims within dialog. Horror films are often rife with contradictions, and those contradictions are what fund the uncanny, rank mood. If you can make perfect sense of a horror film, it is not a horror film. An allegory which has a one-to-one correlation to reality is not worth telling; if the correlation is one-to-one, why not just give the reader what is real? No need to confuse things by giving the characters daffy names like Mr. Worldly Wiseman… A good horror film need only be logical enough to be horrific; if it is too lucid, it will not terrify, and if it is not coherent, neither will it terrify.
The Witch dances subtly between shadow and plain sight such that we never finally know what of the plot has been real and what has been imagined. That ambiguity is a strong and authentic testament to every kind of horror, though. The denial of God’s mercy is the loss of real personhood, after which point nothing makes sense.