A more harrowing or dread-inducing film you’re not more likely to find this year on Seattle Screens than Robert Eggers’s colonial fantasy The Witch. Set in 1630 and with dialogue partially based on diaries from the time, Eggers tells of a Puritan family living alone in a deep dark wood, and the evil that preys upon them there. Long a metaphorical vehicle for all manner of issues (the hunting of witches being analogized most famously as anti-Communism in The Crucible, while more recently witches themselves have become celebrated as free-thinking proto-feminists) or moral lessons, Eggers strips away the subtext of his folktale in favor of an experiential trip inside the mind of Puritan true believers. It is established right from the opening scenes that there are witches and that they are of the purest evil. It remains for us to suffer along with a people whose darkest imaginings are made manifest.
After a brief prologue in which the family choses to exile itself from the established Puritan community and set up a homestead in the wilderness (the Puritans it seems are not Puritan enough for them), we are introduced to the Father and Mother (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie) and their children: oldest daughter Tomasin (soon-to-be-star Anya Taylor-Joy, reminiscent of no less than Claire Danes), her younger brother Caleb, their younger twin siblings and a baby boy. Right away, the baby is snatched away from under Thomasin’s nose and the horror begins. We see the witch, and what she does to the poor infant, but no one else does, and suspicion naturally falls on the girl. When Caleb then disappears on a clandestine trip to the woods, followed by a series of increasingly unexplainable terrors, Thomasin faces the full wrath of her family’s fear. There’s no real suspense in the film: we know there are witches and it seems extremely unlikely that these people will escape from them. It’s rather a morbid curiosity as to how their torture will play out that keeps us riveted. That, and Eggers’s scrupulous approach to period detail, in language, in lighting, in set design, even in typography.
That the film has drawn comparison with, among other things, the works of Robert Bresson or Ingmar Bergman should not be surprising, considering that it is about people who talk a lot about God in dark, candlelit rooms. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath would seem an obvious reference point as well, but what those films have and this one does not is a genuine interest in faith, in what it is like to believe in the existence of evil. Eggers shunts questions of faith aside by making his evil a matter of fact. Doing so increases the tension, and The Witch is nothing if not tense. Rather than an intellectual examination of What Witches Mean, the film is instead a sensory exploration of what it feels like to be surrounded by an unfathomable, but no less real, darkness. It’s a deeply unpleasant place to be, as much for the fact that accepting the fanatical Puritan worldview as truth (necessary for the film’s effectiveness, a suspension of disbelief in disbelief, so to speak), Eggers is asking us to live inside the minds of people who equated womanhood with evil. Thomasin’s equation with the witches is established early on, her nascent femininity a cause of deep discomfort in the oldest son in the days before his capture (which is itself sexualized). As in The Exorcist and Carrie, it is the fear of the young woman that throws the world into horror. Unlike in those films, however, there’s no possibility of satire (they parody the fears of the patriarchy by taking them to luridly horrific extremes). We can’t distance ourselves from the misogynist worldview that drives the narrative because in the world of the film it is manifestly true: there are witches, they are women, and they are terrifying.
If the film engages with religion at all, it’s with a glancing blow at the Puritan idea of pre-destination, that whether one is saved or not was determined by God at creation, and that no amount of faith or action can change God’s will, that if we have been saved we’ll do good works and if not we’ll be sinful, rather than the other way around (to grossly oversimplify but hopefully not mischaracterize a concept that this lapsed Catholic has always struggled to comprehend). Thomasin and her father discuss predestination as all around her events conspire to demonstrate that she is in fact sinful, despite her not taking any sinful actions. The witches are a tangible manifestation of Thomasin’s inherent sinfulness, and even though she never does anything wrong, she’s ultimately revealed as fallen by nature. There’s nothing anyone could have done: it was inevitable that she turn to evil.
While this construction doesn’t have the deeply felt weight of the kinds of theological struggles one associates with the trinity of Bergman, Dreyer and Bresson, it is at least is a pretty slick way of narrativizing the abstract and, to us, very weird beliefs of a community of people whose very weird beliefs are a foundational core of our very weird national belief system. But the film reaches back even further than that to more fundamental, pre-Reformation traditions. Eggers explicitly positions the film as a folktale, the realm wherein woods bearing witches are a common trope, warnings designed to discourage risky behavior by the young. The facts of medieval life being that it simply was not safe to wander too far from one’s home village, instilling in children a healthy fear of the outside world, where, if not supernatural beings in fact, there certainly lurked dangerous brigands, wild animals (even beyond particularly freaky goats and bunnies) or, worst of all, people from another village. The film begins after all with the family’s departure from the safety of the community, and it is their isolation from that community that makes them convenient victims for the local evils. The father states explicitly that it was his pride in thinking he knew God better than the community leaders that has consigned his family to their fate, and if so, the moral of the film is clear: don’t question authority, go along with the herd, the people in charge know best, it’s best not to think too much for yourself. Of course, pre-destination being what it is, if they had stayed in the community, Thomasin’s evil would have manifested itself anyway. They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.