Movie Review: ‘The Witch’

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In my senior year of college, one of my history classes embarked on an in-depth study of the Salem Witch trials where we read over many of the case’s original historical documents: settlement maps, population dispersal charts, census reports, church membership roles. After months of work, we came to the conclusion that the people accused of witchcraft were usually—though not exclusively—poorer, geographically distant from the town center, infrequent if not absent churchgoers, and invariably “expendable” women: young and/or unmarried. These “witches” were perfect scapegoats for communal anxieties: extreme isolation; constant uncertainty over the prospects of survival; an omnipresent religious tradition fueled by fire-and-brimstone sermons, visions of hell, and a Calvinist dogma which refused to guarantee salvation based on faith and good works. From a sociological standpoint, the Salem Witch Trials are fascinating glimpses into the causes and inevitable outcomes of a uniquely New World brand of mass hysteria. But from a fictional standpoint they are the wellspring of a uniquely American tradition of horror and fantasy that inspired countless works of fiction by countless literary luminaries such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King.

But perhaps the greatest fictional achievement to come from this tragedy is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a magnificent play later turned into a film by Nicholas Hytner which suggests that the victims of the enchantments and hauntings may have orchestrated them for attention and to direct focus away from their own societal transgressions. It succeeds so well because a) it was a brilliant allegory for McCarthyism, and b) nothing supernatural actually happened.

But imagine if during performances of The Crucible a wizened old woman dressed as a witch appeared in the rafters and wiggled her fingers during the scenes where the victims were possessed. It would ruin the point of the film, right?

This brings me to Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2016), the most disappointing part of which is the fact that there actually is a witch. That’s not exactly a spoiler: we see her going about her evil business only 10-15 minutes into the film. Appearing only two or three more times, her presence can be deemed largely superfluous. At its core, The Witch is a story of paranoia and superstition. It follows a 17th century Puritan family banished to the wilderness for heresy being tormented by seemingly supernatural phenomena. First their meager crops become infected with a strange rot. Then the youngest baby literally disappears from under the nose of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter. Then the eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) vanishes while searching game traps in the woods. And all the time the young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) sing merry songs about how Black Phillip, their black goat, whispers to them in the night.

An atmosphere of dread and panic infects the family. The mother starts glancing at Thomasin with fear. The sane and stolid father, emasculated by failure, becomes increasingly frantic and crazed. In a fit of rage brought on by Mercy’s merciless teasing and laziness, Thomasin shrieks that she is a witch and will devour her if she doesn’t behave. And beyond their fields, the dark forest, pregnant with antediluvian dreads and secrets, silently beckons.

Of course, we know the cause of these bizarre goings-on: a literal witch in the woods. For instance, the baby disappears because it is kidnapped and ritualistically sacrificed (again, this all happens in the first 10-15 minutes). By pulling back the curtain and revealing the presence of the supernatural, The Witch ruins what could have been a stunning examination of the roots of why young women like Thomasin were accused of sorcery. The glacial pacing doesn’t help, either: the best horror films are slow burn affairs, but The Witch almost fails to catch fire at all.

This isn’t to say that The Witch is a complete failure. Above all, the film is gorgeously shot and wonderfully acted. Jarin Blaschke’s chiaroscuro cinematography reminds one of the candlelit scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) shot with only natural light. His frame compositions are positively luscious with their alternating emphasis on symmetry and asymmetry, claustrophobic interiors and even more claustrophobic exteriors. There isn’t a bad performance in the cast, but Scrimshaw steals the show as a young boy tortured by religious guilt and burgeoning incestuous feelings towards his older sister. The climax of the film isn’t the thunderous finale which admittedly features one of the best money shots in recent horror history—it’s a scene where a bedridden Scrimshaw experiences visions equal parts religious and sexual ecstasy.

6/10

Nathanael Hood is a 27 year old film critic currently based out of South Florida with a passion for all things cinematic. He graduated from New York University - Tisch with a degree in Film Studies. He is currently a writer for the Turkish Journal of American Studies, TopTenz.net, and his personal film blog http://forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com/. You can contact him via email at nathanael@theyoungfolks.com. Follow him on Twitter: @natehood257 and Tumblr: filmsfoodandfandom.tumblr.com
  • balowulf

    How can you claim that the presence of the witch is superfluous? The witch preyed upon, and exploited, the paranoia and self-hatred of these characters. This is a story about a family encountering a malevolent intelligence that they do not understand and, because of their weakness in heart and mind, it destroys them.

    • Nathanael Hood

      I simply think that the story of a family cannibalizing itself with fear and paranoia would have been more impacting if there was some ambiguity over whether or not there was anything supernatural egging them on.

  • Greg Emilio

    Dude, this is an articulate review. The film came up short for you because it let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, and because it didn’t have a socio-historical agenda; the movie was not trying to right the wrongs of an era that we now know to be laughably unjust. However, I think you are unwilling to meet the film on its terms, and, more importantly, to suspend your disbelief. Yes, there is a witch. Yes, the witch appears early on. Is it so different from any other kind of villain being revealed in a film? “Witch” is clearly set up as a folk tale, not a piece of revisionist art like “The Crucible.” And as for its “glacial pace”–that’s simply hyperbole. The film is taut precisely because the villain is set up so early, and because the family is so clearly doomed from the start. Still, I appreciate your analysis of the film. It’s helped me understand it better, and for that I thank you.

    • Nathanael Hood

      Greg, thank you for being so civil in your disagreements. After the comments I got on my 13 HOURS review, this was extremely refreshing. I wish all debates over movies were this polite and friendly! Cheers!

  • Jim

    As someone who hasn’t seen the film, I found this review interesting, but a complete spoiler. Based on the previews, I was intrigued as to whether or not the film truly had a supernatural deity, or was just about religious paranoia run amok. Now I know, thanks to your give-away review.

    • Nathanael Hood

      I understand your frustration. But like I said, we know for a fact that there are supernatural goings-on within the first 15 minutes. What I didn’t spoil was the ending and most of what happens in the last third. So there’s still plenty to be shocked at!

  • The point is, the fact that there was an actual witch made the film pointless, either there are witches, doing all kinds of bad stuff, or there are just people, doing bad stuff but you can’t have both. I also really am confused by people saying this is a feminist film, while the stereotype of the old naked evil woman witch, in thrall to Satan of course, is the big evil of the movie. That is a trope that has been used against women for hundreds of years, decidedly anti-feminist. I do agree that the movie looked beautiful. And I appreciate this review, I am amazed that more people don’t get it.

    • Nathanael Hood

      I have no opinion over whether or not the image of the witch is anti-feminist or not. If anything, the witch has been substantially reclaimed away from such sentiments thanks to the ubiquitous Harry Potter franchise. But I get what you mean.

      • the archetype “witch” is multifaceted, and has certainly undergone more of a popular culture overhaul with for example HP as you note. however the first witch in this movie exhibited all the standardized bad witch markers, so…..could have been a person with extreme mental illness, which is no doubt one reason people were called witches or possessed, however since she could actually fly and snatch babies …….well call me confused again.

        • Nathanael Hood

          I know, right? It makes things even more confusing.

  • Robert Bayer

    My problem with this movie is all its characters other than the witch ALWAYS make the wrong choice. There is nothing to root for or against.

    • Nathanael Hood

      Eh…I can forgive that for characters facing such extreme pressure and paranoia. Nobody made the right choices in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, either.

      • Robert Bayer

        Actually in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE… 1 character made the best choices she could in that film and she didn’t die. It is a better movie that this one for that reason. Why watch puppets who cannot change their fate? That is as dull as it gets.

  • Joe

    The ending was a complete cop-out and ruined what came before. Although I appreciated the film’s technical prowess and the performances, its lack of a single tone bothered me through out. Does it want to be a Bergmaneque/Reeves examination of psychosexual social mores in Puritan 17th century America or merely an homage to the films of Hammer et al? Eggers is a talented technical filmmaker but an immature writer. I also took offence to the outdated notion that somehow the environment is evil in and of itself. In the end Eggers own Puritanesque feelings won out over scientific sense. Better he had ended it on that final shot at the table.