If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the quarter century I’ve spent on this planet, it’s this: don’t go to the movies on a Friday or Saturday night. It is the 11th Commandment, so obvious, it needn’t be chiseled. Yet, this past Friday, due to the restrictive nature of my carless existence, I had to jump at a chance to see THE WITCH. Now, if you be a wise person and have never seen a horror movie on opening night, you may not be aware of just how discouraging it is. And I don’t mean discouraging in the movie-going sense, I mean it in the life-living sense. The participating-in-society sense. It’s a fascinating cross section of the bottom of the social barrel. The majority of the crowd is there with one solitary intention – ruin stuff. These are the people that scream exaggeratedly, the people that laugh when a naked body appears, and the people that seem to, for whatever reason, aspire to break noise records in the field of popcorn consumption. They’re amazing, truly, and they’re out in droves. While my particular sampling of bozos eviscerated the trailers (THE PURGE: ANARCHY didn’t stand a chance against one guy’s sarcastic “Oh that looks great!”), they were oddly subdued during the majority of THE WITCH (which I like to pompously attribute to their inability to understand the dialogue) right up until the ending. The perfect, beautiful, overflowing-with-delicious-symbolism ending was completely derailed by moronic and inexcusable laughter, and the final shot? Punctuated with an obnoxious fake shriek from just one row back. And you know what? None of it affected me. I was enraptured. Ensnared. Enthralled. Lots of en-words. That’s how good THE WITCH is. I was frozen, because it’s not out to scare you. It’s out to petrify you.
Set several decades before the Salem witch trials, THE WITCH follows a family whose patriarch, William, has been deemed too extreme by the town council. Uh, yeah, too extreme for Puritan society. He and his family are banished, as the Puritans are wont to do, and they settle a day’s walk from town at the edge of a deep patch of woods. William and his wife start a small farm with their children: the eldest, Thomasin; her younger brother, Caleb; fraternal twins, Mercy and Jonas; and a newborn boy, Samuel. One day during a game of peek-a-boo, Thomasin removes her hands from her eyes to find Samuel has vanished from his spot and a trail leading into the woods. Their mother, Katharine (played by the masterfully creepy Kate Dickie of Game of Thrones), is devastated, and eventually comes to suspect Thomasin of wrongdoing. That is all I will say about the plot. While its specifics aren’t crucial to its overall message, I think this film works better the less you know. It lulls you into a hypnotic state of awe.
The horror of THE WITCH is threefold. Its first aspect is natural. It’s the brutishness of agrarian life, the fear of the dark, the woods. In this way, the film is most like Lars von Trier’s divisive and disturbing ANTICHRIST. It utilizes imagery to convey a Rousseauian view of life, and it’s through that lens that William guides his family to see their religion. They are “steeped in sin,” born wicked, and in need of God’s grace and forgiveness at every turn. This fundamentalism is the second root of THE WITCH’s horror. The film makes clear just how fertile of a breeding ground for evil religious extremism really is – a message that tragically still applies. Thirdly, about midway through the film, it comes to light that Thomasin’s parents are preparing to find her a husband no matter her wishes, and THE WITCH adopts the necessary feminist plight of the historic Salem trials, which targeted nonconformist women. It’s this aspect of THE WITCH that its harrowing ending drives home so well.
Writer/director Robert Eggers saw to it that THE WITCH is as authentic as possible, making it an English major’s wet dream. Its language is true to the time, so you better dust off your ‘dost’s and ‘thou’s. Every single actor, children included, deserves remarking here as well. The material is dense, dated, and difficult, but is brought to believable life by each of them. The film is so authentic and unique that I worry we may not see another like it in quite some time, so I implore you to give it your time and support. They don’t make them like this often, and when they do, you have to cherish it. And don’t let some loser in the theater ruin it, either, though I doubt they could.