The Witch

★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2015
Director: 
Robert Eggers
Starring: 
Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickey, Harvey Scrimshaw
The Setup: 
Exixed Puritan family faces trouble in the wilderness.
Discussion: 

I’d been hearing about this movie for a while, seeing it playing and garnering acclaim at various film festivals, so obviously I was interested in seeing it. And while it was good, quite good, it’s also not necessarily electrifying and not necessarily exactly what you might expect. Which is good, right? Yeah. Yup. Sure is.

The whole thing takes place in the early United States of the 1600s. In the first scene, the family is kicked out of their settlement because of the father’s unusual beliefs. They find a place near a stream and some woods, and build a house and some outbuildings there. A few months later [no witchly activity during that time, apparently], the eldest daughter, Thomasin, is playing peekaboo with the newborn, when suddenly the infant is snatched. We then see a woman in a red robe in the forest—reassuring to those who worried that there might turn out to be no witch at all—and we see her [in discreet, artsy candlelit scenes] grind up the infant and rub the blood all over her body. Yeah! Okay, it's hardcore! But you have to remember that they didn’t have Jergen’s Age Defying Multi-Vitamin Moisturizer at that point in history.

Then we get some scenes about the farm. Oldest boy [still younger than Thomasin] Caleb checks out Thomasin’s breasts, and goes hunting with dad, who he questions about the baby’s heaven-dwelling status, since the infant hadn’t yet been baptized. Dad confides that their crops are failing, and that they have to go hunt for game or they will starve by the end of winter. Dad also says that he stole a silver cup from his wife and sold it for hunting supplies. Mom later blames Thomasin for stealing it. There are two other kids, both around 8, and both fairly obnoxious. They accuse Thomasin of being a witch, and she jokes that yes indeedy-do she is.

Now, the whole thing is in early dialect, and there’s a lot of whispering and murmuring, and that, combined with my increasingly poor hearing, meant that honestly, I understood maybe 50% of the dialogue in the movie. It all looks suitably dreary, but without any stunning, or even stirring, visuals. And it proceeds along nicely but without much action or anything thus far to raise the pulse. But things are about more complicated.

SPOILERS > > >
Thomasin and Caleb go out into the woods, where they spot an evil bunny that Caleb had seen earlier. The dog runs after it, he runs after the dog, and Thomasin gets knocked out after falling from the startled horse. Caleb finds the disemboweled dog, then the witch’s house. She comes out, looking rather youngish and pretty [but still age inappropriate] and draws him in for a kiss—then another, aged and haggy hand grabs him, and the screen goes black. Thomasin later returns by herself, but it’s not looking too good for her, and soon mom is accusing her of being a witch.

Doesn’t help her case when Thomasin is the one who finds Caleb, naked and delirious. They take him upstairs and he has a fit, and the accusations start flying about Thomasin being a witch. The two youngsters, after hurling their insults, fall into fits as well. Caleb pukes up a bloody apple [like, whole apple], and then he seems better. Then he proclaims his love of Christ. Then he dies. Then dad boards Thomasin and the twins up in the stable with the evil black goat and various other animals [like the white goat that has previously issued blood from a teat]. Ah, the simple farm life!

Well, the shit starts flying thick and fast now, and you might want to decide if you really want to know it all, as here come the best scares and images of the movie. Personally, I would see the film first, as honestly, the rewards are somewhat meager, but genuinely shocking. But you know you, you do what you want, no matter what I say.

That night, in one of the scarier scenes, the kids wake knowing something is in there with them, and soon they see that the witch is in there, suckin’ at the blood-giving goat. Well, back to sleep, then! Meanwhile Mom gets up and what’s this? Why, it’s Caleb, back alive, and holding the little infant, too! Looks like everything is going to work out just fine! Dad goes outside and, well, never turn your back on a possessed black goat, or you just might get the horns. Although, this goat’s horns are turned down, toward it’s neck, meaning that it would have to do some pretty fancy footwork in order to gore dad, as it does—discreetly just off camera—but I believe it, as that goat is DEXTROUS. Or, we are meant to believe he is. He’s Satan-Dextrous, and as I'm sure you know, that’s just about the worst kind of dexterous there is. Then he bashes dad into a woodpile, which collapses on him, which we do see, because it easily accomplishable through simple physics. The twins are gone, too, by the way.

Well, I’ll bet you knew mom wasn’t REALLY happily reunited with her resurrected infant, but would you ever have guessed that she’s actually the new mommy of an adorable baby koala bear? No? Well, you’re right, because actually a crow is pecking at the bloody cavity where her breast used to be. Yeah! It’s hideous, and might be one of the more effective horror images you see this year, and could well induce nightmares amongst the more impressionable. Then mom comes down and blames Thomasin again for everything that’s happened [why can’t she just be happy with her tit-pecking new baby?] and tries to kill her, leading Thomasin to stab and kill her. Some days you’re so jumpy you’re committing matricide before you’ve even had your morning coffee, you know what I mean?

Well, Thomasin is at a crossroads. Either she tries to survive alone in that grim wasteland, she gets tried for witchcraft, or she becomes a stripper. Honestly, I think she could have cooked up a story about a bear or something and escaped the witchcraft charge, but she FEELS she’s out of options, that’s the important thing. Plus, no one knows where those obnoxious brat twins are, and if she doesn’t hit the road soon, she might end up saddled with them. So that night she addresses the goat, asking him to show her the ways of Satan… and guess what? He responds! Sometimes when you reach out for spiritual help, your prayers are answered! She signs her life away and is told that she is going to see the world [she should have got that in writing—all she ends up seeing is a bunch of middle-aged cellulite fanny and a treetop about forty feet away] and that night she follows her new goat buddy into the forest, where she meets the other witches, and aforementioned cellulite fanny. The surprising thing is, after a not-bad but visually unremarkable film, we have a SUDDEN visually stunning shot, as a vertical treetop with horizontal branches is illuminated, and naked Thomasin is walking into the forest just beneath. I like saving the stunning visuals for the key moments, I just wish there had been a few more key moments. Anyway, she meets her new sorority sisters and floats, laughing, into the air. She might get fat and ugly soon, but I suspect she’s going to have a lot more fun in life that she’s been allowed so far, and I believe some toe-curling Satanic orgams may be in her future, too. You go for it, Thomasin!

Before we leave the spoilers, we have to talk about what it all “means,” because we can’t hit any of that without spoiling the ending. You might have thoughts, as I entertained, that perhaps there really is no witch, as a lot of the terrible things happen with only Thomasin to witness them, but I don’t think that interpretation goes very far, it seems there really is a witch. Dad seems off and like a self-righteous jerk from the start, and he makes his whole family suffer for his egotism. Thomasin… one interpretation of the ending is that Thomasin actually was the evil one all along, as she does indeed end up killing her mom and embracing evil, she was with the baby when it vanished, she was in the woods when Caleb met his fate, so maybe there's stuff we don't know.

But it seems that the strongest interpretation is that, amidst the strictures of a patriarchal society, and a highly patriarchal situation, she followed her own way and ultimately embraced her own agency and power, finding that… oh sorry, guess I must have dozed off for a second there. That’s all well and good and true and right, but maybe just a little bit boring. You know, Carrie embraced her agency and found her power. Forty years ago. So did the woman in Ginger Snaps. So if that’s what it’s all about, that’s fine, you know, just slightly unoriginal, and a tad disappointing.
< < < SPOILERS END

On the one hand, quite good, on the other, a bit underwhelming. It is quite artsy, not just because they’re speaking an indecipherable dialect, but also because the whole thing is very spare and slow, and devoid of “excitement” for long periods. And looking at the thing as a whole… it’s just a little spare. You should definitely see it and it is certainly among the better things out there. Just a little… "good" in a way that's a bit tired.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, but understand it’s a bit underwhelming.

Comments

... Thank you for (1) confirming that my difficulties with catching the dialogue is age-appropriate, and (2) confirming [SPOILERS!] that we don't get definitive word on the twins' fate. A little surprised that once Thomasin tunes into their wavelength at the end they're simply dropped.

I took the dominant pot-clanging to be about fanaticism rather than patriarchy. Dad might drag his feet more on staying isolated, but Mom seemed as devout as Dad, and it's their uncompromising belief system that turns the family in crisis against each other (while offering zero defense from the supernatural - d'oh!)

Definitely true on the fanaticism thing... especially as the accusations start flying. But again... the idea that fanaticism is bad feels like preaching to the converted and something, despite all the srtful dressing, we've heard several times before.

I haven't heard anything about your bunny for quite a while. Is he still on the scene?

She died a few years ago. It was kind of tragic... she was fine until I went out of town, stopped eating the day I left [tooth problem], died in my arms within 2 hours after I arrived back as I was rusing her to the emergency room. But she had a good life for a bunny and never was a small creature more loved, or loving, so I content myself with that. Thank you for asking.

What was her name? In her honor, I watched your video review of "Night of the Lepus" again.
Do you have any pets now?

Thanks for your kind thoughts. Her name was "The Bunny." No, my apartment in Chicago is pet-free, so I don't have anything, and besides, it's hard not to see them as little bundles of heartbreak after one has died! But she was great, and I was grateful to have her... thanks for your kind words and interest.

I remember a friend who lost a beloved cat to feline leukemia. Expressing that heartbreak, she plaintively concluded, "Fuckin' animals!" Her words seem bizarre, but her tone conveyed the emotional toll these creatures can take on us. (She was a tough talker in general, sometimes ruminating on the value of the word fuck as an adjective.)

I've dragged this review way off-topic, but one of the things I love about movies is the way they open up aspects of real life for discussion, just as literature does.

I think if I had been able to see this movie cold, as the Sundancers did, it would have made my hair stand on end, especially after the bit with the baby. But months of eager anticipation, and the spoilers in the trailer and even the poster (the original one, with a cropped profile of the goat, was sinister and ambiguous and perfect), all worked to neutralize what would have been some very jolting moments, although I still jumped when that gnarled hand came up alongside Caleb's head as he was being distracted by the witch in her younger guise (I had the idea that it was that witch's own hand, not fully transformed by the infant's blood), and jumped again when Black Phillip made his first move on Dad; as I recall, those moments were very skillfully done. It's a bit like wondering what it must have been like to see "Psycho" the first time without knowing anything about it. Alas, the only movie that ever really knocked my socks off was "Alien", just as the Rolling Stone article said it would.