The Witch written and directed by Robert Eggers (Parts and Labor, RT Features, Rooks Nest Entertainment, R, 92 min)
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson.
Real-Life Horror: The Salem Witch Trails
1600s New England provides fertile ground for the horror genre. Ever since grade-school lessons of early American history, the perilous nature of settlement coupled with the puritanical views of the earliest European immigrants equal paranoia and poorly weighted justice.
Mention witchcraft in conjunction with early Americana and the Salem witch trails come to mind. Ask the average person about this historical event and the likely response would link to innocent people (mostly women) paying the ultimate price when a paranoid community requires a scapegoat after experiencing the harsh realities of living in the new world.
Cast Out in the Wilderness
Robert Eggers’ The Witch manifests this paranoia in a spooky but thrilling period piece. Set in the 1630s, the film begins with the excommunication of a pious family from their New England settlement. Best defined as theological differences, William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) trudge to the edge of the wilderness to homestead with their five children, trundling all their possessions to this remote area.
Their eldest daughter, Thomasin (Ana Taylor-Joy), bears the heavy burden of daily chores and keeping her siblings in line while her Father and Mother plant crops and do their best to prepare for an inevitably harsh winter.
Unfortunately, circumstances go south quickly. While watching her youngest brother, Thomasin loses track of him, mysteriously. Her mother plunged into a panic, Thomasin does her best to continue through her daily tasks. And yet, more mysterious afflictions pile up. The corn harvest withers, forcing her father to trade valuable possessions for a trapper equipment. Caught in a lie about the vanishing possessions, William and Thomasin’s brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) set traps in the treacherous forest. Despite prohibitions against setting foot in the forest, Caleb attempts to review the traps alone. Thomasin, having caught Caleb as he prepares to leave, demands to traverse the forest with him. When the two split inexplicably, familial assumptions around piety and demonic possession float to the surface as Thomasin wanders back to the homestead alone.
Female as Sorcery
Thomasin, with her expanding femininity and womanhood becoming noticeable to all, becomes a clear scapegoat for all the fear, pain, and destruction running rampant in the family. Labeled a witch, Thomasin, must fight for her honor with the ones she loves, while also doing her best to stay alive when something clearly spiritual in nature is afoot.
The mastery of The Witch, outside of impeccable dialogue, set design, and cinematography, exists in its underlying assumptions around organized religion and the dangers of womanhood. While 350 years exist between then and now, womanhood remains a danger. Thomasin faces accusations of sorcery and wickedness, not through her actions, but through her appearance. The camera often lingers on Thomasin’s bust, not in a sexually explicit manner, but in a way to suggest she is changing. With those changes, much like a caterpillar to a butterfly, her family reconsiders her entire identity. Likewise, women face similar questions about identity today. While they may not need fear a noose like their counterparts in Puritan New England, they face clear challenges in our modern setting. Consider the working woman and her challenges around announcing a pregnancy at work. Research suggests unconscious bias occurs in this circumstance. While outwardly congratulating her, the partners of a firm might question her devotion to the work; they may wonder if she will come back after maternity leave; she likely won’t receive as quick a promotion after children enter the picture.
The Witch forces the viewer to empathize with the plight of Thomasin and to consider the dangers of womanhood in society. We conjure a feeling of “otherness” when considering the Salem Witch Trials, but this film suggests we haven’t strayed too far from these harsh realities. The Witch delivers on its horror-genre premise. It also delivers on its deeper, thematic elements. Recommended.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5