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The Witch

If “The Witch” isn’t the best artsy horror flick of 2016, then it’s going to be an especially good year for artsy horror flicks. An astonishing debut from director Robert Eggers, this is a beautiful, dark, haunting film about a Puritan family that completely disintegrates, step by step, hour by hour, until only one is left, and that one is shaken to her core. The production design is fantastic, the performances are full of conviction and the actors handle the difficult Puritan English with a naturalistic grace. The result is a film you won’t soon shake.

Ralph Ineson is the head of a New England Puritan family who, at the beginning of the film, are cast out of their plantation because of his heretical preaching. They move farther inland, away from all human contact, build a homestead, and begin to prepare for winter. Then terrible things begin happening, starting with the sudden and unexplainable disappearance of the baby.

On the simplest and most literal level, there is an actual witch in the woods, and the goat is possessed. When I say simple I mean Ockham’s Razor simple, not “simple-minded” simple. While the witch is mostly a background character, making things happen from offscreen for the most part, she does appear in a few scenes, and the director uses no cinematic techniques that would make us think these scenes are anything besides actually happening. This is a film about a witch who destroys a Puritan family, and it’s terrifying and entertaining.

It seems that the most popular way to interpret the film is as a parable about the dangers of extreme religion. In this view, the family’s problem is that they are Puritan; the witch is imagined, the goat doesn’t speak, and all those scenes are nothing more than imaginative fantasies. I see this as an overly simplistic interpretation that has more to do with the current cultural zeitgeist. his interpretation stands up to a close watching of the film; the director is clearly working pretty hard to treat Puritanism with more respect than it’s usually treated on film, and he’s said in interviews (one of which I posted on my Facebook site) that he found the actual historical situation far more interesting than this.

I found it more interesting to see it as a film about the land, and this family’s displacement upon it. There are no Native Americans in the film, and yet there is a pervasive feel that these English Puritans are intruders in a land where they don’t belong, and the land itself won’t welcome them. Cast out of their plantation, they are on the very bleeding edge of this forbidding place. Their crops won’t grow, their traps are triggered but empty, and there seems to be an evil presence in the woods. They are probably going to starve when winter comes. “We will overcome this wilderness, we will not be consumed by it,” William declares early on, but he’s losing ground, and may not even be equipped to fight this battle. In several places, their homesickness wells up – they long for apples, for butter, for a place that makes sense. I think the Puritans believed that God would bless hard work, and if they worked hard enough, their skill level and knowledge of the land and how to work it would become almost irrelevant. It must have been terrifying –and absolutely faith-shaking – when hard work resulted in rotten crops, illness, and starvation. It might be enough to make you believe in witches.

 

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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