The Witch

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“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

Did I just give you the creeps? Greetings, spooky lovers! Today, I’m breaking down The Witch [2015] into sharp, yummy little pieces.

I have to share Rolling Stone’s description of this beast: “Like an unnerving ‘Grimm’s’ fairy tale directed by Stanley Kubrick and tongue-kissed by Satan.”

Yup. Many won’t have the taste or the patience for this kind of horror, which is a real shame. This is a bare bones horror, a bleak horror. A steady dread that builds and wallows within this family and the viewer. This film is black as pitch. And so, so human. This film will not leave you. In the hours and days after you see it, it churns around your head. The Witch just gets it right.

Authenticity

Every prop and stitch in this movie is authentic to the time period. The costumes, the house, the accents, every detail was calibrated to transport the viewer into the sludge of Puritan settlement.

The subtitle to this movie is “A New England Folktale.” I’m a huge occult nerd and appreciate the “accuracy” of the witchcraft in play here; it fits accounts from the witch hunt days, and is using the basics when it comes to black magic – goats, familiars, books, babies, that sort of thing. I read a review that claimed the movie wasn’t breaking open any barriers with its symbolism, but I think that’s actually the point. The point here is authenticity, and these things exist in our culture and our history.

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Environment / sound

I’m not sure what the viewing experience was like in theaters, but I can say that the Blu-ray copy I watched bounced wildly in volume. Speech is often a half-whisper before the score comes in shrieking upwards into uncomfortable decibels. Environmental noise creeps into the score. Also present are constant whispered prayers. You feel like every character is struggling with their religion, and how to feel out there on the edge of the world, staring wilderness in the face.

The environment is a character in this film. After being exiled from the village, the family sets up shop on the edge of a forest with no perimeter fence. It’s a stupid detail that shouldn’t bother me but it actually does. Why wouldn’t they set up a fence? At the very least to keep the kids and the goats in? Or keep coyotes/wolves/passing ruffians out? I dunno. Anyway.

Cinematography and successful shots

Oh my gracious me, this is a gorgeously shot film. Wide shots last sometimes for minutes as fog rolls across the trees, or our protagonist just sobs in the dirt before pushing a corpse off of herself. This movie grabs your shoulders and says, “be still, I have something to show you.” There is no relief from this story, or for this family, and you feel that in every second of the film.

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Feminism

I’ll get into the ending a little further down the page but wanted to start this conversation here while we work through the film. Question: is this a feminist film? YES. Thomasin is an un-Puritan Puritan. As she matures and questions her family’s decisions and beliefs, her family sees her as a threat. Some have said this film is discussing the demonization of female sexuality, and I don’t disagree, but I don’t see Thomasin as sexualized. She is still devout – she stills prays in private, not just in front of her family, and she seems to only want freedom. I pause at this female sexuality argument because it is insisting that for women to be a threat they must be sexualized, which is something specifically designed for the male gaze. So I don’t see Thomasin as sexualized, but I do see her as empowered, and yes, the two can go hand-in-hand, or they can go side-by-side, or go their separate ways.

If you have the Blu-ray or DVD, I highly recommend checking out the special features. Director Robert Eggers proclaims this proudly and without hesitation to be a feminist film. God bless you, sir.

Characters

This film is both narrative and character driven – whoulda thunk you could do both these days? – so I’m going to dig into the meat of this through the characters.

Thomasin

Thomasin is a body of contradictions, which makes her human and interesting. She is a young lady coming into her own awareness; she is now aware of her environment, her restrictions, her family, and the flaws of Puritan life. The Witch nails this by not telling us this, but by Thomasin’s internal frustrations cracking more in each scene. The film opens with her confessing and ends with her corruption. I’d say Thomasin suffers more than her siblings because of her age. She still remembers England and how much easier life was before they came to this country. Eggers designed her after Elizabeth Knapp, and actual girl from Puritan Massachusetts who was believed to be demonically possessed.

After she kills her mother, Thomasin takes off her Puritan clothing. My biggest question is about Thomasin’s independence. Had her family lived, she would have been sold as a housemaid to a family in town. The witches are directly responsible for the chaos her family suffers and its demise. So is it really her choice to join the witches if she was forced into it?

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Caleb

Caleb is the purest of his family. He doesn’t remember England and blindly follows his father anywhere. He hauls around a gun that is twice his size while trying to work through the brush of the forest. Caleb has two scenes that really sting:

  • When Caleb and his father set the rabbit trap, Caleb’s small hands work the metal pieces down while William holds the trap in place. They discuss hell, and Caleb is frantic with the fear that his unbaptized brother has been banished to hell. William tries to comfort him, but it’s clear that years of following William’s example and the Puritan life has condemned Caleb’s mind. How can he ever have peace if he believes his infant brother is in hell?
  • The possession scene in the attic is a masterclass of writing. Caleb writhes around, speaking coherently, revealing what the witch did to him in the forest. The witch spelled him and took advantage of him, and we wonder if he even understands what she was doing on top of him when he compares the feeling to his religion. The family (with the exception of the demon twins) pray and then cite a Psalm. Caleb comes in clearly with the last line, finishing the family’s efforts. The effect is chilling. His death immediately after is so sweet and so sad, we’re just happy he didn’t die like this baby brother.

William

William has a voice like granite crumbling apart. It wasn’t clear to me why his family was banished from the village. You see William in every detail of the farm; his rotting corn hangs in all corners of the house, and everything is so handmade, you can tell that William has spent the last year building this hell from the ground for his family. He is not a cruel father physically or verbally, or even really emotionally, but his example has led his children and wife into seeing hell around every corner when they cannot even tell that hell is actually out in their barn. William wears his flaws for us to see. In one scene, he stares down at Katherine as she lies in the grave with Caleb. He wants to bury her with the boy.

William’s most powerful scene comes after he boards up the children with the goats and then falls to his knees, fills his mouth with dirt, and begs through earth-muffled tones for mercy. I found it odd that he accepts corruption by Black Phillip a moment before he dies; everyone else’s corruption is perfectly placed and his was just sort of plopped on the viewer. He is buried under the endless pile of wood he chops, which Thomasin says is the only thing he’s good at.

Katherine

Katherine is an oddity. She is cruel to Thomasin for losing baby Sam to the forest (it wouldn’t have been as easy for the witch if they had a perimeter fence). She is in hysterics for most of the movie, and before anyone else. She says to William in one scene that she had a dream when she was younger that Jesus came to her and she was “ravaged by His love,” and could never love another being in that way. I have to bring this up – ravaged is not a delicate term. I read this as a visitation by the devil, and possibly that she might have passed on a witchy gene to Thomasin. Just a thought.

Katherine’s corruption scene was perfect for her character. Her dead children appear and offer her the book, then she imagines she is breastfeeding baby Sam, and instead she is breastfeeding (read: being pecked at) by a familiar, a black crow. In the moment before she sees her sons, she steps one foot out of the bed, similar to how we see the witch step out of the hut, and removes her Puritan bonnet.

The demon twins

Yeah, I guess their names are Jonas and Mercy. Nay. They will be henceforth known as the demon twins. These kids are creepy doll-like monstrosities that are very obviously singing impossible and dark songs about that damn goat. Should have been a red flag to everyone on the farm. The twins are weathervanes that no one in the family is paying attention to. They constantly whisper to Black Phillip, bahhing in his ear, as if they’re telling him how to be a goat. They sing their Black Phillip songs as the tension builds, are hysterical when the family is cracking, are comatose when the family is in shock, and are just gone when the farm goes completely to hell.

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Black Phillip

Even as a goat, Black Phillip is terrifying. The song he teaches the demon twins reveals his identity:

Black Phillip, Black Phillip

a crown grows out his head,

Black Phillip, Black Phillip

to nanny queen is wed.

Jump to the fence post,

running in the stall.

Black Phillip, Black Phillip

king of all.

His black coat contrasts with the subdued palette of the rest of the film, so it’s impossible to not stare at him when he is on screen. It’s just too perfect that the devil is actually outside in their barn from the start. It’s not clear where William bought Black Phillip from, or how he appeared. The family accepts him as part of the reality.

In the climactic last few moments, we finally hear Black Phillip’s voice and see glimpses of his stylin’ boots and coat. The scene is successful because we never see more than a few inches of him at a time.

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The witches

I’m going to avoid the obvious discussion of the wolf and Red Riding Hood. One of the witches wears a red cloak, and they are all wolves. Far more interesting is the idea of the hare being a trap, instead of the family’s trap being for the hare. We see the hare around the farm and in the barn.

The witch appears early, and it is revealed early that she is actually a witch doing witchy things. That choice made me happy. The film is completely avoiding the “are they just crazy” discussion.

The young witch who attacks Caleb is more terrifying than beautiful. As she approaches him smiling, we can’t see her teeth. But most of the time, these witches are feral and primal. The film embraces both the ugliness and the beauty of the human body, as celebrated in these witches.

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Thomasin’s choice

The ending shots are flooring. Thomasin approaches Black Phillip and asks him to speak to her. We see pieces of Black Phillip but never the whole, his voice melodic, strange, poetic. Then she strips completely down. Is this really her choice? She can’t even write her own name – the devil has to guide her hand. The witches have put her in this situation. They killed her family. Her choice is either to die in the wilderness or try to make it back to town with no horse or supplies, or join the witches ranks. So is it really her decision? I’m not convinced it is. Is Eggers saying that no choice is a good choice for women, that we are often forced to choose the lesser of two evils?

I appreciate the balance at play here, implying that these women would choose the devil over a Puritanical society where they are subjected to men’s desires and religious punishment. While we absorb the weight of Thomasin’s choice, she heads into the trees. The shock of her pale skin in the dark matches the shock of a white birch sticking out of the treeline. Then we see the other witches, and there are a lot of them! Where did these women come from?? Were they all expelled from settlements? This is a newly discovered land, so I read these women as having come from a village. The witches howl and shake, and then float upwards. Thomasin, still covered in her mother’s blood, watches without fear and then rises into the trees. For the first time, we see a look of pure joy on her face.

Heavy stuff. I know this one got some mixed reviews, even from people I know, so I’d love to hear y’all’s thoughts on the film. If there’s anything I missed or you want to discuss further, let me know. Until next time!

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