In 1630s New England, William and his family have been banished from a Puritan plantation having expressed heretical beliefs. They have built a farm in a secluded forest, where they live a solitary life. William’s wife, Katherine, has given birth to their latest child, Samuel. One day, their daughter, Thomasin plays peekaboo with the baby only for him to disappear without a trace. Unbeknownst to the family, a figure clad in red has kidnapped the unbaptized infant and kills him, using his blood and fat to make an ointment. Though William insists a wolf stole the baby, his wife and children suspect evil forces may be at work.
Director Robert Eggers, hailing from the state of New Hampshire, was inspired to make a film having been fascinated with witches since childhood, supplemented by frequent visits to the Plimoth Plantation as a schoolboy.
His enthusiasm was met with an undue amount of skepticism from film executives, who believed his ideas to be “too weird, too obscure”. This prompted Mr. Eggers to take a few steps back, realizing the only way he could sell his idea would be if he made it more conventional. However, he had a caveat to this new direction: if he were to make a genre film, it needed to be personal and good.
When the executives greenlit his vision, he made it clear from the beginning that this film, The Witch, was a passion project. He spared no expense going for authenticity; the casting was done in England so the actors’ and actresses’ accents would be similar to those of a family that had recently arrived in Plymouth in the 1630s. Furthermore, he used building materials commonly used in the era to craft sets. Accordingly, the cast wore clothing associated with puritans of that age. He even wished to film on location in New England, but due to the lack of tax incentives, he could not. He instead settled for filming in Canada, which proved somewhat problematic. This is because he could not find the kind of forest environment he was looking for. Therefore, the team had to go off the map. They eventually happened upon the remote township of Kiosk, Ontario – a place Mr. Eggers felt “made New Hampshire look like a metropolis”. With everything he needed to proceed, he and his team were ready to shoot.
The Witch premiered for the first time in January of 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival. For good measure, it was also screened in the Special Presentations section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival in September of that year. Independent entertainment company A24 acquired the distribution rights, and The Witch saw its wide release in February of 2016. It was widely lauded by critics, who believed it to be equal parts visually stunning and thought-provoking. Mr. Eggers’s effort was, from their standpoint, a solid debut.
Watching this film for the first time, I could appreciate the sheer amount of effort that went into making it. Despite its melancholic tone, it’s a beautiful film to look at. What caught my attention was the complete lack of artificial lighting. Only the sun and candles were used to provide any kind of light. Being used to the Hollywood variety of darkness, which is typically quite bright, electing to shoot a film using only natural light sources was a move both ingenious and ironic. By presenting the world as it is, Mr. Eggers lent a supernatural, surreal feeling to his film.
Moreover, this film is a triumph for costume designer Linda Muir. She stated in interviews that she had consulted thirty-five different booked in a series entitled Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England before stitching together the costumes. As is befitting the era, they were made with wool, linen, or hemp. All of these touches go a long way in selling the audience that they’re gazing into bygone era. Some may even forget they’re watching a film for a brief moment. Even the title enforces this on the film poster upon which it’s styled “The VVitch”. Mr. Eggers had taken inspiration from a Jacobean-era pamphlet on witchcraft and many other period texts that bore this particular spelling convention.
With a determined, visionary director, a skilled costume designer, and the ideal location, all The Witch needed was a solid plot so the quality ingredients could meld together and form something greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, I do have to give this film credit for touching on rather dark subjects. Not only is a defenseless baby ruthlessly slaughtered, Caleb, the younger brother of Thomasin is kidnapped by the titular witch nearing the end of the second act. It’s even implied that he was molested when he returns to the farm later, and then he too dies.
However, I would argue that as these events are playing out, the first problem with this film becomes apparent. Anyone expecting a conventional horror film will be disappointed, for the pacing is very slow. It takes a long time before anything interesting begins to happen. Strangely, the screentime isn’t used to develop these characters. As a result, the deaths of Samuel and Caleb are only tragic because the audience is watching young children die. When it comes to characterization, both characters are more defined by what happens to them than who they are.
I also have to remark that, for all of this film’s praise, the symbolism is rather entry-level. The family goat, Black Phillip, is possibly shown to be Devil’s avatar. Black Phillip is associated with Satan because the figure is often depicted with goat-like features. A crow can be seen picking at Katherine in silhouette at one point. Crows are associated with death because they’re known scavengers. Essentially, if you’re at all versed in horror, you’ll know the purposes of these animals’ bizarre, seemingly out-of-place appearances without needing to read up on the film. The only piece of symbolism I found clever took the form of a rabbit that can be seen throughout the film. The sin of cowardice was often represented by a knight fleeing in terror from a rabbit in medieval times. This was an effective way to show the irrational fear that plagued the characters because it requires a fair bit of knowledge to grasp. Alternatively, if you’re confused at first, you can read up on it and become a wiser person for it. The one effective piece of symbolism also makes the case that it should have been the rule rather than the exception.
Other than its approach to symbolism, I would say the fatal flaw with The Witch is that it many important details are left unexplained. Why Caleb dies, who the witch is, and what happened to Samuel are examples of questions that are never answered. Mr. Eggers set out to deliberately enforce this by encouraging audiences to deduce what they thought the story could mean. I would argue the problem with this premise is that the narrative doesn’t give viewers enough of a base on which theories can be formed.
This problem comes to a head in the ending. Thomasin, having killed her mother in self-defense, is all alone. The fate of her remaining siblings’ is unknown and her father was gored by Black Phillip himself. The avatar asks Thomasin if she would like to live deliciously. Materializing as a tall, dark man, he orders her to strip and sign her name in a book he conjures. After doing so, she follows Black Phillip and joins a coven of witches holding a Witches’ Sabbath. They all begin to levitate and the film ends there.
This may sound bleak given that Thomasin joins the very people who killed her family, many people interpreted it as a shining moment for her. Given that the 1600s Puritans’ misogynistic tendencies, women weren’t allowed to have many aspirations beyond being housewives and mothers. By joining this cult, she is now free to do as she wishes. This interpretation is interesting in that Anya Taylor-Joy, the actress playing Thomasin, shares it. Though reading this film as a parable for female empowerment is interesting, I don’t think it’s defensible. Because Black Phillip’s first action is to ask Thomasin to strip naked before inspecting her, the relationship is more akin to that of a master and slave. Though she is free from the Puritan lifestyle, the one she finds herself in is arguably worse. The Puritans were far from saints in light of their actions in Salem, yet the activities of Black Phillip’s coven include gaslighting, infanticide, and rape. This means they automatically forfeit any chance of claiming the moral high ground. One could give them credit for being upfront about their evil, but it’s a paltry victory at best. In light of this information, I would argue The Witch is not empowering at all, coming across as staunchly anti-feminist.
This isn’t to say a film needs to explain absolutely everything to be good. As a counterexample, one need not look further than Ingmar Bergman’s landmark art film Persona. The difference between Persona and The Witch is that the former gives audiences enough of a solid plot before going off the rails and letting them formulate their own theories about what it’s about. Conversely, I would liken The Witch to being given a multiple-choice test without being allowed to know what the questions are.
The Witch was a critical favorite upon release, yet the full story of its reception does not, in truth, end there. Although The Witch fared well in the box office, making forty-million dollars on a four-million-dollar budget, filmgoers were not impressed. CinemaScore, a market research firm wherein audiences rate their viewing experiences with letter grades, awarded the film a “C-” on an A+ to F scale. This was also evidenced on websites such as IMDb or Amazon, on which the fans’ consensuses resulted in a 6.8/10 and a 2.9/5 respectively. If one were to take these scores at face value, it would be easy to get the impression that The Witch is an unremarkable, middle-of-the-road effort. The fact that it was a critical darling wouldn’t cross this hypothetical person’s mind.
In all honesty, it’s a little difficult to fault the public for having disliked The Witch in 2016. A24, the company in charge of distributing The Witch, elected to market the film as a supernatural horror story when it is, in practice, more accurate to describe it as psychological drama. While audiences expected a thrill ride loaded with blood, jump scares, and sex scenes, what they got was a slow-paced, atmospheric film that could even be construed as a particularly dark slice-of-life story. It is because of these marketing tactics that A24, unfortunately, brought a significant portion of the backlash upon themselves.
Had they been more upfront about what they were selling, these problems could have been avoided. It’s possible that the film would have made less money had that been the case, but as with any other business, it’s not a wise long-term strategy to gamble so recklessly with the customers’ trust. It was an especially bad idea given that in 2015, A24 strung single men along with bots on Tinder to promote Ex Machina. The only reason they didn’t receive as much of a backlash then is because Ex Machina proved to be hit with both fans and critics. Granted, how they promoted The Witch wasn’t nearly as unethical as their Ex Machina marketing stunt, but the ensuing backlash was still unsurprising in hindsight.
Though I wouldn’t be quick to condemn The Witch entirely, I find it an extraordinarily difficult film to recommend. The most basic problem with The Witch is that it builds itself up very slowly. It’s not until the last twenty minutes that things could be said to have finally gotten interesting. Consequently, whether or not any given viewer will enjoy this film boils down to one question: “Was the payoff worth the wait?” Your enjoyment of this film will hinge entirely on that question. If it works for you, you’ll likely count it as among your favorites. If not, you’ll actively wonder how it ever became a critical darling. At the end of the day, The Witch was an arthouse film made for fans; anyone seeking out a gateway work should look elsewhere.
Final Score: 4/10