Back before the good old days, if you were a woman who wanted to live independently and have your own mind you were considered a witch and burnt at the stake. Now of course, things have moved on so much: if you are an independent woman with her own mind you are called a feminist and burnt on Twitter. Somehow being a witch was, and still can be, a bad thing, even if now we (mostly) accept that the torture and murder of witches was a travesty of history.
The witches of Robert Eggers’ The Witch are certainly not shown in a very good light. In many ways their portrayal here is a step back from Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General from 1968, which firmly placed the evil doings at the feet of men, not the innocent women who were executed for being different, being in the way or, you know, being a woman. However despite dealing with some familiar territory about false accusations and the power that fear can create, I don’t think Egger’s aim is to make a political point about the supposed witches of the past. To me it seems to be a film about faith, and how that faith is not enough to survive the harsh realities of the real world.
We start with a family cast out from a puritan community (for being TOO puritanical, which must have been saying something in those days) in New England who set up a new home at the edge of a forest. The family consists of the parents, a pubescent boy, young twins, a baby and the eldest – a teenage girl, Thomasin . You can probably guess who is going to get a hard time about being a witch.
I don’t think we in the modern western world can ever understand the hardships the first settlers must have experienced when they arrived in America. Within their communities it must have been hard enough, but this isolated family is constantly on the brink of destruction even before the witch turns up to steal the baby. The crops are failing, the father William is a terrible huntsman in a place where there is hardly anything to hunt anyway and they are all very, very alone: the nearest village a couple of days away by horse -and they’ve lost their horse! When the baby disappears and the twins take a joke Thomasin makes far too seriously, suspicion falls to her and whether she is the witch of not.
This film is no Crucible-style witch hunt movie, it is more of a study of a family in free fall as they fail to survive the new frontier. Although Williams and his wife Katherine have a deep devotion to their faith and each other, they are unable to find comfort in their beliefs as their children disappear or die and their world falls apart. When the puritans left England for America I suspect they thought that they were expecting to find “God’s own country” but The Witch suggests what they discovered was quite the opposite: William and Katherine can only see evil and the Devil’s work in this new land.
The Witch was promoted as the latest big scarefest, but what hits you after about two minutes of the film, is that even more so than It Follows, this is not a mainstream horror but an art house film. Scenes are often long and silent, reflecting the big and empty new land of America. The scenery itself is beautiful for sure but it mostly looks cold and muddy and unwelcoming – who would want to start a new life here? Not me. Not even one of the characters who spends much of the film angry and bitter until one small, quiet moment when she says that all she wants to do is go home. This may be New England but, for her, this is nothing like England – it is too hard a life, too lonely and too much of a test of her faith.
That isn’t to say that this isn’t a horror film. I’m surprised how many people I know who have said it isn’t horror at all but a dark historical drama. The emphasis is indeed on the interaction of the characters and the effect their surroundings has on them but the importance of character and the unflashy direction doesn’t detract from the horrific core of the story. I was more reminded of Werner Herzog films whilst watching this than anything, but then again even he’s made a horror film (or more depending on how you view some of them). There may not be many obvious horror tropes presented here but there are still plenty of witchery things going on. More importantly there is a really scary goat.
Yes, for all the deep questions The Witch asks about faith and nature, it also has time to have a goat who will freak you out.
Plus his name is Black Philip.
It is NEVER, EVER going to happen but in an alternative universe somewhere The Witch is the number one box office movie of the year and they are talking about making a sequel and putting Black Philip front and centre. “He’s the new Freddy Kruger!” a studio exec is saying. Fortunately we’re not in that universe, we’re in ours and Black Philip will just remain what he is: a goat in a little film, but a damned creepy goat at that.
First time feature director Robert Eggers breaks the rule of not working with animals. He manages to russell up some wicked performances from all of them – on top of Black Philip there’s also a rather unsettling rabbit, if you can imagine such a thing. The he goes even further and gets great performances from the children too. Okay the baby doesn’t have much to do but giggle and scream but the twins are absolute shits which is just what we are after from them with all the trouble they cause. Harvey Scrimshaw as the twelve year old boy has lots of tricky dialogue to pull off for such a young age (the dialogue is all 17th century dialect) and does so admirably, and Anya Taylor-Joy leads with a genuine depth to her performance (as does Kate Dickie as her mother). Towering above them all however is Ralph Ineson as William. A proud, god-fearing man who is out of his depth but still trying to hold his family and faith togethe. It is hard to reconcile that this is the same actor who played David Brent’s “best mate”, Finchy in The Office. Ineson manages to pull off a multi layered performance that shows William as physically strong but emotionally weak at the same time, more fearful of his wife than of the supposed witch. Inseson grabs this lead roll by the balls and pulls you into his plight. You don’t even see his face properly for the first few scenes but his gravelly Leeds accent draws you in. You can see why his family travel with him to the end of the world even if he is doomed to fail them.
The Witch probably isn’t for everyone. I guess I can see why some people weren’t moved by it – it is slow paced and deliberate, its chills are limited in the traditional sense and its ending is either bonkers and brilliant or deeply unsatisfying, depending upon your point of view. For me however it was incredibly intense, gripping and sad, with fantastic performances from everyone, from the giant Leeds lad all the way down to the evil rabbit.