The Witch (2015) is an American horror-drama written and directed by Robert Eggers. The plot revolves around a Puritan family in the “New World” of America in the 1630s. The family is expelled from a settlement due to the father’s objections to the social values within the colony. They cultivate new land and begin life anew. But, once the youngest child, Samuel, disappears things begin to descend into madness as supernatural and human horrors come to light…
I will preface this article with the fact that I love this film. I believe The Witch to be one of the most important if overlooked, horrors of the decade. Therefore, there will be a level of bias to this work. However, I do acknowledge that this film is not for everyone. The slow pace, focus on character, and archaic language may be off-putting to some. It also does not help that the marketing for this film presented the tale as a more traditional horror than what it is.
There is a thematic richness to this story and I can’t help but talk about some of them. I am crossing into spoiler territory, but I will only dip my toe as I truly want you to experience this film for yourself.
So, without further ado, let’s talk about The Witch!
Part One: The Hope That Once Was
The Witch has a deep-rooted pessimism within the core of the narrative. It becomes tangible through several microelements that embeds this pessimism into the visuals of the film. The natural lighting takes away any false sense of security, giving way to the true reality that lies beneath. The camera lingers on the characters faces in close-ups as they give way to despair. And the non-diegetic sound is so scarce that we can’t help but be drawn into the pessimism that strangles this film.
The narrative begins in this hopeless state. Cast out from the only form of civilization within their grasp; forced to live an isolated existence. The Witch sets out to show the spectator immediately that there are no happy endings. No reason to believe that there is hope.
What becomes apparent to the spectator is that we are in the position of their God. As they find land to farm, they drop to their knees in prayer. And we just observe, knowing there is no use for hope.
As time moves forward, our suspicions are proven true. They are in an impoverished state. Their crop fails, they lack money, and a rift has grown between the family that can be felt, but not seen. This rift only grows as the baby, Samuel, disappears; stolen by a witch, unbeknownst to them. We see this absence of life take its toll on the family. They feel as if their God has abandoned them, leaving them to suffer their sins alone. Ultimately, grief and physical suffering begins to turn them against each other.
The use of diegetic sound highlights this particular element beautifully. We hear the mother, Katherine, wail in despair and pray to God in equal measures. However, a sheet hangs in front of this activity, an excellent use of blocking, and so the spectator understands that rift created in their pain.
The Witch encourages the spectator to empathize with their plight, as we see circumstance open the door to hell. We see they have lost their God, but we can do nothing to ease their pain.
Part Two: O Father! Where Art Thou?
Of all the themes to be buried within the narrative of The Witch, the most prevalent is sin. This ties into the overtly religious nature of the film and offers itself as a critique of religious dogma in regards to how it can destroy one’s self-worth.
Many factors point towards this critique and identify a curious element of the film: the choice to indulge sin. One of the characters, Caleb, begins to notice his sister, Thomasin, as more than a sister. We can see through the camera-work the level of guilt he feels at this incestuous notion, but it is understandable with the level of isolation the family faces. Yet, it is clear that this move into adolescence confuses him and, rather than seeing it as natural, he has been trained to see sin in it.
Another example is the father, William. Several moments in The Witch focus on him chopping wood. The spectator gets the impression of his hopelessness as his family falls apart. He feels that the only thing he can provide is to chop wood. William believes he is a sinner because he can’t fulfill his sole purpose on Earth. He has lost all purpose to his existence.
Finally, the twins, Mercy, and Jonas communicate with a goat called Black Philip. It is revealed that the goat is in fact Lucifer. Therefore, the twins are the biggest sinners as they indulge in what is seen to be the evilest force that there is.
What I take from all this is that sin takes the form of their guilt. They all feel lost and believe that they have disappointed their God. We see their social constructs tear down and learn the solace that some take in these forms, losing who they really are within them.
Ultimately, the Devil is in us all. All we need is the wrong circumstance and a lack of understanding to let the demon free.
I’m not going to analyze the ending of the film for two reasons. The first is that there is so much in it that I could write another 2000 words on that part of the film. The second is that I truly want you to watch The Witch. I will understand if you don’t enjoy it, but it is a film that needs to experienced by all who have an interest in horror.
Therefore, if you have a penchant for grisly images, morally tormented characters and a sense of the uncanny, then I implore you to seek this film out. Rarely do I find an experience that I want to keep returning to, but this is certainly one of those special cases.
Did you enjoy The Witch? Love art-house horror? Let us know!
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