Director: Robert Eggers
Screenplay: Robert Eggers
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke; Editing: Louise Ford
Production Design: Craig Lathrop; Set Decoration: Mary Kirkland
Costumes: Linda Muir; Score: Mark Korven
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Grainger (Mercy), Lucas Dawson (Jonas), Bathsheba Garnett (The Witch), Sarah Stephens (Young Witch), Julian Richings (Governor), Wahab Chaudhry (Voice of Black Phillip)
A true sleeper creeper, promos state The Witch is like watching something we shouldn’t be seeing, but see it for goodness sake! Having kept a low profile, the appeal of this movie should spread by word of mouth, the same way witch hunting hysteria did back in the day. One of the few horror films of recent vintage to genuinely unnerve viewers had to reach all the way back to the foundations of the country to find its scares.
Following excommunication from Plymouth Colony in 1627, a family of Puritan separatists, parents William and Katherine (Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), relocates to the outskirts of a wood rumored to be haunted by a witch. Already fearing themselves damned for having been cast out by their religious order, they seem to be cursed as their crops fail, fields lie fallow and goats pass blood instead of giving milk. Desperate for some place to lay blame for their misfortune, they begin turning on one another as convenient scapegoats. As preternatural evil undermines the institution of the family, they rend themselves asunder from the inside out.
The concept of The Witch is as old as the nation’s bedrock, and even older still, reaching back for centuries, all the way to the Spanish Inquisitions. Having been brought over by the pilgrims as it was, Old World baggage washed up on these virgin shores, stories of witchcraft qualify as perhaps the most intrinsically American of horrors. Salem is only predated by Roanoke, and it’s been haunting the nation’s psyche ever since. Whether fact or faked, Abigail Williams and those other possessed girls set the precedent for all the Amityville horrors to follow, so the endless scenes here of the father chopping wood to work out his pent up frustration almost seem intended to serve as homage. Haunted families usually flee their home in horror films, but having been set so far outside the normal range and comforts of civilized society, this one can’t get far enough away from the woods they now border for safety (as Katherine assures us “You cannot escape the woods.”).
Becoming ever more hemmed in as the story progresses, the mother’s increasing overprotectiveness means she can’t bear to have her children or husband out of sight for fear they’ll be taken from her as her baby was. Waking to find her eldest son has wandered away as well, she enjoins “I like thee not outside the farm. Even to the valley. Dost thou hear me?” After Caleb and Thomasin venture into the wood to gather animal traps, she’ll leash her twins to the fence post so they can’t likewise toddle off. Mercy, the youngest girl, blames Thomasin for the fact that the children can no longer leave the farm (“I could go to the brook before you let the witch take Sam.”). But even if they managed to escape this patch of earth there’s nowhere to really run, with miles and miles of open terrain separating them from the colonial fort and safety, nor any help to be had since, shunned and banished as they’ve been, “There is none would help this family.” Besides, believing the devil is within them, trying to outrace one’s self would seem an exercise in futility.
The Witch remains intensely focused on just this one family and the spare roster of actors and the remote location means the film is far tighter and more focused than one would suspect going in, increasing the claustrophobic sense of isolation. There’s a similarly oppressive air of smothering intimacy in the night scenes set around the dining table, as the ominous, all pervading darkness seems to press in, shunting the family members even closer together, threatening to swallow them whole, as the woods seem to Sam. Asking Caleb to read a chapter from The Good Book, William advises “We must find some light in our darkness,” while Thomasin’s opening prayer ends with her asking for the Lord to show her His light.
The blackness is literal, stopping only at the family’s firelight, but also reaches into the dark recesses of human ignorance and superstition. Its encroaching presence enhances our foreboding that no aid will be forthcoming. The sights and wonders composed by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, many lighted like the paintings of an Old Dutch master, appear almost archetypal, worthy of the spectral photography that adorned Benjamin Christenson’s silent classic on the same theme Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. They’re images we’ve always known, having haunted our imagination for generations, but seem here be seared onto film for the first time. With a background in scenic and costume design, director-writer Robert Eggers, making his impressive feature debut, is fully aware of the intrinsic power of the visuals he’s composed.
Bearing the tagline “A New England Folktale,” the story, as the afterward states, was inspired by the host of sources Eggers based his research on, including folktales, fairy tales and written accounts of historical witchcraft gleaned from Puritan diaries, court documents and The Geneva Bible. Since “Much of the dialogue comes directly from these period sources,” it’s not surprising that Eggers’ script sounds as if it had been conceived in Old English, which must have been its own sort of nightmare for the cast to memorize and enunciate properly, without sounding as though they were speaking in iambic pentameter. Everyone talks with an English accent thick enough to cut with a trowel and while it makes perfect sense that they should, not being many years removed from the Old Country themselves, it’s still startling to hear. Most films set in colonial times strive to make their characters sound more American by eschewing recognizable regional accents in favor of a more ambiguous historical speak, contrived as a pan-phonetic catch-all.
The movie is akin to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, if it had been played for visceral horror, the young children taking their cues from the older in feigning their phantom fits and hysterics (“Dissemblers! Grave pretenders all. Hear me this: I will not play a fool to children’s games!… these lies from our babes’ mouths are but trifles to them.”). Like Miller’s subversive play, which pointed its own accusing finger at the unchecked McCarthy witch hunts sweeping the land during the ‘50s, this sinister fable gets at something just as deeply unnerving in our national psyche. While not directly associated with The Crucible, like it, The Witch is among the few interpretations of those burning times that’s ever really worked. To find a more direct equivalent, one would have to reach all the way back to such short stories as “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was himself haunted by the decisions handed down by infamous ancestor John Hathorne, magistrate of the Court of Oyer and Terminer during the Salem trials themselves. The Witch manages to draw out the intrinsic horror of this material in a way that’s rarely been accomplished as successfully. So despite its ancient lineage and antecedents, Eggers’ opus still feels like the least derivative horror film around.
A cinematic equivalent of the game of ‘Boo!’ Thomasin plays with baby Samuel before he’s spirited away, The Witch holds the secret of invoking true terror but does so through modest means most other movies would eschew, such as slower pacing that establishes a building sense of dread. The film’s rhythmic tempo is perfectly accentuated by Mark Korven’s ominous score which suggests a banshee wail combined with the beating of native drums, a sound suited to the feral sight, modeled after Goya, which greets us at film’s finale. It’s the Devil’s music – lots of discordant cellos and strings as if played on roughhewn fiddles of the period, and has a propulsive pounding, like the beating of A Tell-Tale Heart in Egger’s short adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe classic. Priming us for impending horrors, it creates a mounting anxiety that builds to a crescendo, only to subside so that it can slowly begin creeping under one’s skin again. While the violence is relatively subdued by normal standards, The Witch still offers up a litany of infanticide, cannibalism, castration, incest, pederasty, bestiality, proving that audiences who are accustomed to all manner of perversity onscreen can still be discomfited. Under the guise of its genteel period trappings, The Witch gets away with things a horror movie set in more contemporary times wouldn’t even dare. Though Eggers follows the standard splatter pattern of about one offing per reel, it’s more tasteful than its subject matter might indicate, implying more than explicitly shown, but the suggestiveness is so strong audiences shouldn’t feel cheated or ask to see more than what’s doled out to them. In fact there seems nowhere this movie won’t go, sending our usual safe cinematic bearings spinning out of control. Disoriented, we again become moviegoing babes in the woods, as we did when watching The Blair Witch Project way back when.
Casting character players and young talent who have had little prior exposure, the director must have searched far and wide to find visages so luminously right for the period. Ineson’s puritanical patriarch William looks and, with that rumbling baritone, sounds as if he should be delivering Sunday Service from the pulpit so it’s little wonder he feels entitled to set himself up as judge and jury over the Puritan council of elders that condemns him (“We are your judges and not you ours.”). He roars through this role like Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter, yet he doesn’t miss the finer beats, such as the nervous twitch, which allows us to see his William is unraveling as things spin increasingly out of control. Model and actress Anya Taylor-Joy as the eldest daughter Thomasin, her eyes drawn back into almond shapes at the edges, is inclined to put me in mind of the young English actress Sammi Davis. Maybe it’s her American-tinged, Argentinian-British accent. A certain measure of audience unfamiliarity with these actors going in adds immeasurably to our sense of unease, since we can’t tell who’s considered expendable. The only cast member I was reasonably familiar with was Kate Dickie from Game of Thrones, though Ineson, whose looks are completely altered by the addition of a van Dyke beard here, had also appeared briefly during season 2. So we see where all those Westeros residents end up once they’re killed off and free to pursue more cinematic venues. The Witch shares with the HBO series a dark, all-encompassing world view in which it’s the wicked and corrupt who prosper while the good are made easy prey. For her part, Dickie’s chosen the right showcase with this movie, which even works in a horrifyingly amusing nod to her television role when she suckles that phantom infant and what we fear for a minute might be a three-eyed raven unexpectedly comes knocking at her chamber door. In truth, The Witch seems altogether preoccupied with the female bosom, cinching the Thomasin character into chest-accentuating bustiers naturally inclined to draw the male gaze.
Perhaps The Witch works so well because it bores right down to the rancorous core of Puritan repression, the likes upon which America was founded and witchcraft frenzies fed off. A powder keg that had to pop, it’s an atmosphere of simmering tension this movie gets just right with its images of forbidden fruit and deep, dark Freudian forests. The Witch is the rare movie to possess the charge of true erotic horror, exploiting psychosexual fears we’re still too embarrassed to be publicly confronted with, much less on a big screen in the middle of a crowded theater. And it’s this same sense of prudish propriety that the film taps into, an integral part of our Puritanical past. With agrarian existences lived so close to the fecund soil and the natural world, it’s unavoidable that these people would more frequently come in contact with dirt and desires of the flesh. We initially assume with hair-raising horror that we’re watching the genesis of another Salem witch trial unfold in microcosm, as the family’s thoughts turn to notions of the supernatural when they can find no rational explanation for what ails their eldest son. More to the point, and more intriguingly, we’re given insight into the sexual repression and emotional hysteria that served to stoke the fires. Thomasin has reached an age of budding physical maturity (“Our daughter hath begat the sign of her womanhood.”) and as such has become a distracting presence amid the close-knit family group, who determine to pawn her off on a decent husband. When it’s pointed out that “She’s old enough. She must leave to serve another family,” her father William concurs, “The Tildens or the Whythings, they can make use of her. They’re good folk.” For them, it’s easier to remove the cause of their unease altogether, rather than contend with the improper passions and jealousies she rouses in them. The way poltergeist activity is said to be spurred most often by the presence of a girl who’s just entered puberty, as it was with Betsy Bell of the Bell Witch haunting, Thomasin’s sexuality is spilling out all over, causing everyone around her, the woods themselves to go loco.
In its own weird way The Witch is akin to other American standards about families coming apart at the seams like The Little Foxes, The Lion in Winter and Long Day’s Journey into Night. The father can no longer control his wife (“You let Mother be as thy master.”), who is hardly able to rouse herself from bed in her grief, just as Thomasin can’t control the younger children she’s forced to mind in her mother’s stead. It’s Katherine herself who unconsciously encourages the incestuous feelings simmering just beneath the surface, ordering Thomasin to disrobe William so that she can wash out his woolens, to “help him” in a way she’s too incapacitated to herself. And the seductive way Thomasin removes her father’s blouse and later tends his wounds after his wife strikes him, suggests she might be moving toward taking her mother’s place in bed as well. Seeing her eldest girl as increasing competition, their growing hostility, which even the young Mercy picks up on, observing “Mother hates thee,” is stoked by Carrie-like sexual hysteria. Katherine sees Thomasin’s burgeoning womanhood as casting her into an inherently sinful state, accusing her daughter of being wicked when she’s just being normal. Twisting around her words, spoken in jest, specious suspicions of witchcraft seem cast on this seemingly innocent girl simply because she arouses such unacceptable feelings in others, the sort they’d rather not acknowledge. Working her way up into a homicidal rage, her mother lashes out – “The Devil is in thee and has had thee. You’re smeared of his sin. You reek of Evil!… You bewitched thy brother, proud slut! Did you not think I saw thy sluttish looks to him, bewitching his eye like any whore? And thy father next. You took them from me.”
The movie shares with Rosemary’s Baby not simply the witchcraft themes, but the paranoid sense that what we fear couldn’t possibly be the case, turns out to be so all the same. What makes The Witch most fiendishly clever to my mind is the manner in which it consistently shifts audience’s perceptions. Doubt is cast this way and that, making us suspect first one family member, then another, until we’ve become just as uncertain and distrustful as the characters in the movie. Since it could be any one of them, we come to a point where we don’t know who to trust. While the twins accuse Thomasin, she casts aspersions right back on her brethren in order to save her own skin, likewise twisting their words, “Mercy told me herself by the stream ‘I be the Witch of the Wood’.” until we end up right back where we started. Egger’s manner of presentation encourages two completely different interpretations of the Thomasin character. On the one hand, it appears she’s being unjustly pilloried, with her mother hammering her, the twins bearing false witness, Caleb seeming to point a finger in his delirium and even her father turning against her at the end. When her one champion joins in the accusing chorus, it’s the penultimate betrayal, his final outrage against the innocent daughter he’s repeatedly allowed to be suspected of wrongdoing. Refusing to believe her claims that she made no bargain with Satan, he makes it clear he can’t in all good conscience testify on her behalf if brought before the witch finders (“I saw The Serpent in my son. You stopped their prayer. I saw it.”). The dichotomy of the film’s viewpoint becomes clear when Thomasin’s youngest siblings claim to have been told by the family’s freaky looking old billy goat, “Black Philip says you’re wicked… He says you put the Devil in Caleb, that’s why he’s sick.”
However when Mercy’s subsequent rhyme ends with the verse ‘Black Philip will knock thee on thy back,’ immediately before a prostrate Caleb wakes up flat on his back, we know who is truly responsible for his present condition. Already wracked with guilt over having let Sam get snatched away while in her care (“You have their blood upon thy hands.”), Thomasin is reproached by her mother for having misplaced the silver wine cup to which she’s so sentimentally attached (“Did a wolf vanish that too?”). But the fact that the loss of the cup, which her father sold, is compared to the loss of the baby, indicates to us Thomasin’s no more guilty of one crime than the other. Stumbling upon her righteous path, spilling the bucket of water she’s carrying, Thomasin wants to find favor in God’s eyes just as she does her mother’s (“Please you, mother.”) and her desperate prayers to be delivered from evil and for God to cast the wickedness from her heart, impressively delivered by the actress directly into camera indicates, though teetering on the brink, she’s done nothing unforgivable as yet to seek absolution for – “Here I confess I’ve lived in sin. I’ve been idle of my work, disobedient to my parents, neglectful of me prayer. I have in secret played upon thy Sabbath and broken every one of thy commandments in thought. Followed the desires of mine own will, and not the Holy Spirit. I know I deserve more shame and misery in this life and everlasting hellfire. But I beg Thee… for the sake of Thy Son… forgive me, show me mercy. Show me Thy light.” Still we begin to wonder, as we did in Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, whether the unjustly accused witch isn’t really one after all. Things certainly seem slanted to cast suspicion her way, always the last person seen with the victims alive. Wounded when her sister Mercy blames her for Sam’s disappearance, Tomasin tries scare tactics, claiming to be the witch of the woods to get the children to mind her. Not realizing just how primed everyone will be in their present frame of mind to accept such an admission at face value, she mouths the very words that will later be used to condemn her. And yet those same words, which she claims to have only spoken in jest, are subsequently borne out point by point. Everything she claimed to already be doing, she actually will be by movie’s end, so she might very well be outing herself. She claims “When I sleep my spirit slips away from me body and dances naked with the Devil. That’s how I signed his book. He bade me bring him an unbaptized babe, so I stole Sam and I gave him to me master… and I’ll vanish thee too if thou displeaseth me,” warning her sister “If ever thou tellst thy Mother of this, I’ll witch thee and thy Mother! And Jonas too!”
From this vantage, everything that occurs could legitimately be seen as orchestrated, whether consciously or not, by Thomasin herself, just as her family fears. When Caleb tries to get her to confirm that what she said to quiet Mercy was just terrible fancy and that a wolf took Sam, she’ll neither confirm nor deny, leaving us hanging. Similarly when Mercy and Jonas assure her their parents will eventually find out she’s a witch, she doesn’t bother refuting the charge as she will later when under interrogation. Cleaning out the stable, Thomasin is seen with shovel in hand as if it were a broomstick, the quintessential image of a witch, much as Mercy will later use a tree branch to simulate riding through the sky, like the crone who lifts off on the night of the full moon. But while the unguent mixed from tender baby flesh was the vital ingredient apparently needed to accord her power of flight, there’s no indication that the witches at the end required any similar salve to take to the air.
Thomasin is the last person with Caleb before he disappears, and though earlier we’d only seen him aroused by fleeting glimpses of his sister’s developing bustline, when he wanders off into the woods to have his longings fulfilled, it’s in the arms of a consort whose chest has been accentuated to seem every bit as bosomy. It’s also Thomasin who somehow miraculously manages to retrieve him from the wood after the fact, as Dominic Guard inexplicably did one of those girls who’d gone missing during the Picnic at Hanging Rock. Caleb unexpectedly reappears “pale as death, naked as sin and witch’d” as her suspicious father points out, the dark shadow of doubt that crosses his face making it clear he suspects something isn’t right (“This is unnatural providence.”). While their old orchard in England had been the last thing he was discussing with his sister before they were separated, when commanded to identify whose spectral form assails him Caleb’s mouth is sealed tight with an apple, to prevent him from speaking her name. Moreover, immediately preceding the poor dog’s disembowelment, it’s Thomasin who’d been recalling an amusing scene from her youth when her irate father vowed he would roast Fowler if he ever found him on the dining table again. Though she claims it’s not safe being in such close proximity to Black Philip and the twins she believes are in secret covenant with him, come morning it’s only Thomasin who remains safe and untouched. Significantly, we never see Thomasin and the witch in the same frame together, not even by the bonfire at the end, though everyone else and their mother appears present. When the witch does put in an appearance, more often than not it’s while Thomasin is unconscious, after she’s bucked off the bolting horse for instance or is asleep in the shed. Thomasin’s entreaty for God to show her His light at the beginning is followed in the very next scene by the initial appearance of the witch, as if in answer to her prayers so she might be pure conjuring from her fervid imagination. As clincher, she’s nowhere to be found when the witch manifests, milking the goat precisely as Thomasin was earlier seen doing.
It’s left to the individual viewer to decide whether Thomasin were a witch from the outset or became one by happenstance along the way, a self-fulfilling prophesy. Her latent nature appears to have been lying dormant in her all along, unbeknownst to Thomasin, while plain to everyone else. As it was with the characters in movies like Oleanna or In a Lonely Place, perhaps she just gets fed up defending herself against all the false charges, giving in and finally becoming the very thing everyone keeps accusing her of being. In the hypocritical world of Puritan patriarchy we’re shown, embracing what the film depicts as man’s inherently sinful state seems healthier than repressing it. Pressed to speak truth (“Prithee confess. Christ can un-witch us if you but speak truth to me.”), her father proves unable to handle what she has to say, uncorking the rage she’s kept bottled up, throwing his pretenses back in his face. “You and Mother planned to rid the farm of me. Aye, I heard you speak of it. Is that truth? You took of Mother’s cup and let her rail at me. You confessed not till it was too late. Is that truth? … You took Caleb to the wood and let me take the blame of that too. Is that truth?” Thomasin’s righteous anger seems horrendous issuing from the mouth of his innocent little angel, so the open and honest candor with which he’d requested she speak just digs her grave deeper. Her defiance is used to confirm the accusation against her, making her father condemn her all the more (“Must I hear the Devil’s tongue wag in thy mouth?”). With a fear of witches instilled in her from birth, Thomasin still finds them preferable to the depths to which she’s witnessed God-fearing Christian folk sink. Selling her immortal soul in bondage appears little worse from her perspective than being sold off like chattel for a life of husbandry. Succumbing to the allure of abandonment in the forest, Thomasin finds her corruption both liberating and empowering. But for those commentators who have found a pro-feminist subtext in the film, it should be pointed out that this movie tends to reaffirm the prevalent Puritan belief that women’s weaker wills made them more susceptible to the Devil’s inducements.
What may be most disturbing about the film is its hardline, puritanical viewpoint, which coerces the audience into suspecting Thomasin, joining the howling mob who’d as soon burn her at the stake. When Sam first vanished, his frightened sister initially gave chase as if in pursuit of a dingo, but stopped dead in her tracks at the tree line, pulling up just short of running off into the woods after him. Later she’ll be seen sitting on the outskirts, as if something we’re calling to her, while not daring to enter. But we’re left wondering why, if she were so scared of them, she would have taken Sam to the very edge of the forest in the first place, laying him out as if an unconscious offering, much as she’ll insist on escorting Caleb in on horseback. Without any qualification made for actual Wiccan practitioners, Eggers adopts the same mentality prevalent at the times, in which wicked witches were real, Satan manifested in physical form and inherently sinful humankind had to be on constant guard against succumbing to temptation.
Alongside the Indians and wild animals the early settlers feared just as much, the deep, dark forests they subsisted on the edge of were believed to harbor imminent threats to Christian lives and values, demons and devils against which the devout had to stand eternal vigil. The setting seems primitive, pagan, near primeval. When the God-fearing family drops to its knees to offer up thanks to heaven, it appears for all the world like a satanic invocation. Given the manner in which they hold their hands while praying, their upraised arms serve to form the letter W, as though unconsciously invoking The Witch herself, whose name has been similarly spelled with conjoined Vs in the title. Their fear of what lies just beyond their sight line, hidden within the dense foliage, recalls the similar fear that pervaded M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. There’s even a fleeting figure draped in a riding cloak of blood red, the color they dared not speak of, receding from view like “Little Red Riding Hood”. The film is full of fairy tale imagery like this, which the Brothers Grimm might have devised for their stories. Caleb even ambles his way through the woods to the proverbial gingerbread house whose walls seem intertwined with the bramble and brush around them. While the film is rich in such storybook inspirations, it’s the two youngest children, fraternal twins, who most put us in mind of ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ Eggers had directed a German Expressionist-inspired, 2007 animated version of the tale and dips right back into it to draw out similar visuals and ideas here. More than anyone else, Mercy and Jonas look as if they might have stepped right out of a woodcut of the times, but perchance because they’re played by babies, the characters don’t seem sufficiently developed the way the older children are. Still, they serve their purpose. The creepy rhymes they chant about Black Phillip (voiced by Wahab Chaudhry far more smoothly here than, say, Spike Lee’s talking canine was in Summer of Sam), imparts all the hints we need concerning his true origins. There is reference to the fact that a crown grows on his head, as it would on his sable majesty’s, that he is wed to nanny queen, in other words the old witch of the woods, is king of sky, land, sea, sand as we know Satan to have been given dominion over the earth. As Thomasin points out, “The Adversary oft comes in the shape of a he-goat. And whispers. Aye, whispers! He is Lucifer. You know it. The twins know it too. ‘Twas they and that goat that bewitched this whole farm.” Which leaves us wondering, if “the horned beast” they spend “all day long babbling to” were really whispering profane promises in their ears as they claim, pledging him eternal allegiance (“We are ye servants, we are ye men,”), whether they too hadn’t also been hexed, as their sister contends. But if witches themselves, there seems no reason for them to be preyed upon by the frightening apparition in the stable at the end. Though William avers “We are children of sin all, yet I tell thee I have raised up no witch in this house,” the sneaking suspicion is that by fostering up his children like savages, outside the grace and benediction of the true Church, he’s sired a whole coven full.
Among the child actors Harvey Scrimshaw, who physically recalls Ichabod Crane’s youthful assistant in the Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow, excels the others, good as they are. Too eager to gain carnal knowledge and prove himself a man, his sexually curious, philosophically confused young Caleb’s encounter with the witch creepily suggests Snow White and all seven dwarves rolled into one. Only this time the roles are reversed as it’s the lost little man who wanders through the woods and stumbles across her dwelling. Indeed, when that figure swathed in Satanic scarlet (Sarah Stephens) approaches in seductive slo-mo with the cherry red apple that will rob him of his innocence, her gnarled tendrils suggest both Snow White and the evil queen once shed transformed herself into a hag. Following that hare as Alice did the rabbit, deeper and deeper into the forest, Caleb finds himself in a similarly surreal, spectral world in which nothing is as it seems. Having strayed from the path himself by this point, he recites his version of the Lord’s Prayer in a vain attempt to guide himself back (“O God, my Lord, I now begin, O help me and I’ll leave my sin. For I repentant now shall be. From evil I will turn to Thee. None ever shall destroy my faith, nor do I mind what Satan saith.”). It’s Caleb who accepts that long sought after forbidden fruit, the sort he still remembers from when his family owned an orchard back in England. Associated with sexual seduction due to its crimson coloring, this apple is symbolic of the original banishment from paradise, sticking in Caleb’s throat as it’s said to have Adam’s. Clamping down like a luau pig, Caleb is the sacrificial lamb here, setting off into the wood to forage for food so his sister needn’t be ‘sent away to serve the Tildens or any other family,’ proving hell to be paved with good intentions. The milk of human kindness he exudes curdles as it flows. When the delusional boy is bled to release the illness from his mind for instance, the steady trickle is collected in a saucer similar to the one his sister kicked over, startled that the goat was passing blood instead of giving milk. Even the mother, earlier shown breastfeeding his infant brother, will have begun lactating red from this wellspring of life by movie’s end. His Caleb is constantly posing insoluble religious quandaries about predestination and the state of his immortal soul and that of his baby brother who died without being baptized. Learning that Samuel was born into corruption, “Aye…we pray he hath entered God’s kingdom,” he believes he must be horrendous by comparison if even a harmless infant is considered sinful (“What wickedness had he done?”). Believing his parent’s wary silence on the subject conceals something more awful than he can imagine, his words topple over themselves in a blind panic “He hath disappeared not one week passed, yet you and mother utter not his name…Tell me… is he in hell? Mother will not stop her prayer. And if I died, if I died this day… I ought evil in me heart. Me sins are not pardoned! And if God will not hear my prayers?! Tell me!” His worst fears that he could suffer a similar fate are later confirmed when, eavesdropping on his parents, he overhears his distraught mother wail “How oft I begged and begged thee to take Samuel for baptism?… Our Sam is in Hell… God save us. And Caleb as well.” We can understand his anxiety given this disturbing Puritanical view that children, by the very nature of original sin, were as inherently corrupt in God’s eyes as their adult counterparts. When Thomasin drops the lone egg yielded by the family hen, a symbolic, half-formed chick embryo emerges rather than yolk, an aborted life nipped in the bud before it could even begin. Haunted by night terrors that he’ll be eternally damned following his family’s excommunication, all Caleb’s doubts come to a head in an astonishing possession scene worthy of Linda Blair, wherein he delivers an impassioned soliloquy that leaves his own parents debating his oft expressed fear about the fate of his immortal soul. While his mother declares “Caleb is dead, damned,” his father counters that he didn’t blaspheme, calling out to Christ, only to be reminded that even the Devil can quote scripture to suit his purpose. Likewise, audiences are meant to be left with lingering doubts about where exactly Caleb stood in the sight of God at the end. Claiming in his nirvana to have been embraced in Christ’s love, his wild ravings unexpectedly sync for an instant with his family’s prayer, momentarily bringing Caleb back to his senses. Eggers has cited this scene as the film’s most pivotal, demanding the audience’s suspension of disbelief and complete emotional buy-in. The attendant pressures placed on Scrimshaw to bring it off were considerably alleviated by the dramatic coaching of Shakespearean actor Ineson, who has worked with child actors on other Elizabethan productions, helping him with muscle control and enunciation, and the chilling results are nothing short of riveting.
His considerable accomplishment is all the more remarkable since Scrimshaw was kept ignorant of the subtext of what he was saying, in which religious rapture and sexual ecstasy seem to merge totally in a mind already clouded by carnal thoughts. Anticipating his mother’s later revelation of a vision of Christ she’d experienced as a girl, in which she was practically “ravaged with his love towards me,” Caleb beseeches “My Lord, my love, kiss me with the kisses of Thy mouth. How lovely art Thou. Thy embrace! My Lord! My Love! My sole salvation! Take me to Thy lap!” words all the more discomfiting for issuing from the mouth of babes. He’s clearly thinking back to those lewd acts we’d seen the witch performing on him.
When the family is first exiled from the colony, we’re undoubtedly meant to be put in mind of man’s fall from grace when cast out of the Garden. The biblical parable requires us to accept the script’s assumption that the fort, whose wooden gates close behind them with terrible finality, was an Eden to begin with, one to which they can never return. Just as we’d have to accept England, by extension, as a celestial heaven, the paradise the grief stricken mother mourns having left. Certainly the fort was no paradise on earth to the innumerable Native Americans we see dwelling within it, and since we encounter none without, the family seems to have far more to fear from the witches and werewolves they believe inhabit the woods than they do the possibility of attack by hostiles.
And the script fails to elucidate what these woods are doing already swarming with witches of European ancestry. We can’t fathom where this coven came from, unless they too had been excommunicated and banished to the outer boundaries of the civilized world over the centuries. At the very beginnings of this country, they already seem to have been infesting these shores since time immemorial, in longstanding league with the black man of the forest. And they must have brought their own devil right along with them since this thoroughly Christianized concept of the horned beast as cloven-hooved satyr stands in stark contrast to the pre-standing pantheistic beliefs of the Native Americans.
With a tone that’s spare and austere The Witch, as intended, seems a work of art that might have been conceived during Puritan times themselves, a horror story to tell by the hearthstone on dark winter nights. The film is told from the pilgrims own viewpoint, a cautionary biblical parable of original sin. “Aye, I was conceived in sin and born in inequity… Adam’s sin imputed to me and a corrupt nature dwelling within me,” Caleb recites, intoning the catechism his father taught him. “My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin and that continually.” It was “prideful conceit” that led William to break with the church, his defiance of religious authority the first step on his family’s path to hell, a curious stance to take considering the pilgrims were themselves fleeing the persecution of an oppressive church when they originally landed on Plymouth Rock. Yet there seems no other reason for them to be beset by all manner of hellish minion apart from the fact that they’ve been excommunicated, denied God’s protection from the threatening forest of green lying without.
Despite William’s pious claims of spiritual superiority, he does not prove himself the righteous man he purports to be. Having stolen the silver wine chalice passed down by his wife’s father to trade for traps, his greater sin lies in allowing his blameless daughter to be falsely accused. Claiming he’ll apprise his wife once her grief has passed, not wanting to bereave her any further, he likewise enjoins his son not to speak of it, forcing the lad to sully his soul by lying when backed into a corner. Symbolizing their loss of grace, the absence of this much sought after silver chalice becomes their own Holy Grail, seeking it a vain attempt to reclaim the divine favor forfeited with its loss. Having shown himself up for the hypocrite his daughter calls him, when the truth finally comes out and William makes confession, it’s by the flickering hellfire of the hearth. As his wife states, “I knew you were false… You stood by whilst our son lied to me… You took him to the woods. You’ve broken God’s covenant,” inducing the almighty to revoke his divine providence and protection.
Laying full blame for their present plight at her husband’s feet with “Aye, (the fault) was thine for taking thy family hither,” he’s further undermined as a good provider when he proves unable to put food on the table. There’s no suggestion that ergot poisoning might be to blame for these frightful visions, as historians have hypothesized the Salem witch trials might have been, but the dearth of food still makes its presence felt. Rationalizing the loss of his youngest, William philosophizes, “If not a wolf, then hunger would have taken him yet.” Pawning Thomasin off on a husband has the additional advantage of leaving them with one less mouth to feed. Threatening a disobedient Mercy by the stream, Thomasin had warned “Perchance I’ll boil and bake thee since we’re lack of food… How I crave to sink my teeth into thy pink flesh.” Later she’ll remember her father having found their dog Fowler laying on the table and roaring “we will have him for meat. Kate! Kate! We will roast this beast.”
Their harvest blighted by the tainted soil in which nothing healthy can grow, the family might be being starved out as a form of penance, the father declaring “Tomorrow we will have a fast day but for our sins.” Their malnourished bodies are correlated with their famished spiritual state outside God’s favor (“As we hunger for this food of our bodies, so our souls hunger for the food of eternal life.”). Not proving any better as a protector (“You’ve lost another child.”), William is indicted by Thomasin with “You cannot bring the crops to yield! You cannot hunt! … Thou canst do nothing save cut wood!” He’s making subconscious and fruitless assault on the witch herself via the trees and foliage that comprise her natural habitat (“We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.”), an ecological attack. When we learn that he’s been setting traps on her grounds for some time past, trying to catch the animals that are her familiars, we know he has incited her fury by trespassing into her domain, a fact confirmed by the startling appearance of a preternaturally reproachful hare who stares down Caleb and Thomasin as they collect pelts.
His prideful conceit in his own incorruptibility has induced him to emulate Moses, leading his people out into the desert. William’s a false prophet captured in profile with his flowing beard, like a sainted religious icon according to the director, and it’s here where each family member will face their own variation on the temptation of Christ (“Was not Christ led into the wilderness to be ill met by the Devil?”). So shortsighted in spurning a life lived in the comfort and security of the Church, William comes to see how blind he’s been to his own inadequacies, a fact made clear when his musket misfires with that hare in its sights, temporarily blinding him physically as much as he has been morally. The father praises God at the providential appearance of wild game, not recognizing the duplicitous hare for the trickster figure audiences instantly know it to be with its bold, challenging stare, sent to tease and frustrate rather than yielding the answer to his prayers. Knowing viewers’ imagination will fill in the gaps, Eggers is very spartan about revealing his witch fully, affording us only scant glimpses here and there. So there’s every indication she may have taken on this animal form, since the same hare will later reappear in the shed as well, communing with its master, just as the witch will herself at the end, finally revealing herself full body, with a cackle by way of Lucille la Verne.
It’s William’s continued stubbornness that damns him, his failure to acknowledge until too late that all these events are God’s final judgment on him for his overweening pride (“How sadly has the Lord testified against you.”), choosing instead to compare himself to Job, believing “He hath taken us into a very low condition to humble us. And to show us more of His grace.” It’s this pride that prevents him from returning to the Church, though not doing so means his family will starve, consigned to the pit (“Will you damn all your family to death?”). Despite his wife questioning “What is amiss on this farm?… It is not natural,” and later affirming God “Hath cursed this family,” William willfully blinds himself to all the signs from on high that he was wrong until the eleventh hour. According to Eggers, it was a herculean effort for actor Ineson to work himself up to the vulnerable emotional pitch necessary to shed tears for his big speech, resulting in much mumbling and slurred words, so what he actually says warrants repeating – “It is my fault. I confess it. O My God. My own fault. I am infected with the filth of pride. I know it. I am. Dispose of me as Thy wilt, but redeem my children. They cannot tame their natural evil. I lie before Thee a coward and thine natural enemy… I beg Thee save my children. I beg Thee my Christ I have not damned my family.”
Like most clueless fathers in horror movies he refuses to accept the obvious until the devil is practically jabbing him with a pitchfork. When Black Philip had escaped his pen nearer the beginning, necessitating William’s taking the beast by the horns, it seemed to visually externalize his own struggles with his sinful state. He was wrestling with the devil like some frontier figure out of American folklore. But it’s William’s unwillingness to believe a goat could literally be Satan and facetious admission that if such were the case he would, in his desperate straits, have forged his own Faustian pact (“If that old billy be the Devil, I’d have danced with him myself.”) that ultimately leads him to his end. Accepting his divinely ordained fate, he drops his prized ax at the very point he could have put it to best use (“Get the broadaxe and cut off her head. Get a narrow axe and cut off her head,” a feverish Caleb had chanted in his stupor), allowing himself to be gored to death and rammed into the mountain of useless wood he’d stored up against a winter he’ll never see.
Forecast at the beginning by a troubled Caleb’s question concerning predestination, the film plays like judgment on each family member, determining whether they fall within God’s grace or will be cast down, consigned to everlasting hellfire. As William tells his son, “I love thee marvelous well. But ‘tis God alone, not man, what knows who is the son of Abraham and who is not. Who is good and who is evil. Fain would I tell thee Sam sleeps in Jesus. That thou wilt, that I will. But I cannot tell thee that. None can.” By their fruits ye shall now them, and it’s through their own actions that divine judgment is meted without quarter. This landscape becomes their personal purgatory, falling outside even the jurisdiction of the stern, Puritan God of wrath and fury who condemns them. In turn, each family member seems to be done in by one of the seven deadliest sins, whether lust, greed, pride, envy, sloth, etc. They all end up signing their names in the Devil’s book, Mercy and Jonas, the mother when Caleb returns from the grave claiming he can come back to see her often, Caleb himself we can only assume, and even Thomasin at the end. They’re all “infected with the filth” of original sin, the sins of the fathers (“Corruption, thou art my father.”), a fact made manifest when a distracted Caleb dunks a bucket of drinking water downstream from where Thomasin is washing out her father’s soiled clothes, polluting at its source the baptismal fount that should be cleansing them.
Most immigrants, from the time of the pilgrims on down, have come to America in search of a better life. But in what may be a filmic first The Witch depicts a country that would seem far from enticing to new arrivals, a blighted, accursed land where nothing can grow, Katharine scoffing when her husband declares it to be a godly place. As far from heaven as one can get, this is no Kingdom of God. As William asks in front of the congregation at the beginning, “What went we out into this wilderness to find? Leaving our country, kindred, our father’s houses? We travailed a vast ocean. For what? For what?” Sounding as if he were making a Faustian pact of his own, he asks what the harping Kate desires to be content “and I’ll give it thee.” But it’s beyond his power. All she really wants is to be back home in England, relating, like Katharine Hepburn at the end of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a lucid dream she had when Thomasin’s age, that she was with Christ upon the earth, the love she felt radiating from him “far exceeding the affection of the kindest husband.”
This God forsaken hell on earth has shaken her to the core, causing her to lose her faith. “I cannot see Christ’s help as near… I feel I cannot ever feel that same measure of love again.” At least not until she shuffles off this mortal coil, her husband reassuring her “Thou shall have of it in heaven,” validating her death wish. When he tells her she must sleep, Katherine, caught up in her prayer, acquiesces “This night and evermore, amen.” Crawling into the grave with the body of her eldest boy, she makes it clear she wants to be consecrated to the earth as well, having already buried her heart. By having the mother express misgivings about ever leaving England and the forlorn children reminiscence about that long ago apple orchard as if it were Paradise Lost, director Eggers, for reasons of his own, might almost be warning away the country’s first European settlers. Antedating all the subsequent immigrant groups who have made their way here since, he might be exhorting them to stay home or at least to return from whence they came, the power of Christ compelling them, casting them out as his excommunicated little family was at the beginning.
In claiming that they’d been so graced by God’s favor up to now they shouldn’t begrudge his taking one baby back to be with Him, William’s words unwittingly imply that blame for Sam’s disappearance rests squarely with God, rather than Satan. Like a died in the wool heretic, The Witch argues that if this Christian God we hear tell of is truly so cruel and unforgiving, stonily deaf to the prayers of his flock, standing by unmoved while bad things are permitted to happen to good people, then the alternative couldn’t be much worse. Which may be why it’s so unsettling, in this film about the rotten core that went into the baking of America’s apple pie (“I’ll scour the field. There must be some fruit yet untouched by this rot.”), that Satan is permitted to emerge triumphant, the lesser of two evils.