Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: The Witch

I saw Robert Eggers' The Witch for the second time last night. I left the theatre unable to stop smiling, which possibly creeped out the cashier at the IGA when I stopped to buy potatoes.

The following reviews contains SPOILERS. So very, very many spoilers. It's spoilertastic.

The Witch follows a Puritan family in colonial New England. The patriarch of the clan, William, feels that the colony is not godly enough, and so he takes his wife and children and fucks off/is banished to the wilderness. That's right, William is so hardcore that he thinks the Puritans aren't into Jesus enough. William's wife Katherine is supportive of her husband and seems to believe that they can live a more godly life on their own. The only one who seems openly upset about leaving is the family's eldest child, a teenage girl named Thomasin.

The family settles down in a clearing next to the woods out in the middle of nowhere. Eldest son Caleb helps his father, while Thomasin helps her mother mind the young twins Jonas and Mercy, and baby Samuel. It's a hard life, but everything is alright in the world.

At least for five minutes.

Now, I've heard and read many people say that the pace of the movie is slow, but I'm not sure I entirely agree. The film clocks in at 93 minutes - what I like to call 'standard horror movie time.' And one of the movie's first shockers comes I'd say maybe twenty minutes in when baby Sam disappears... and is murdered and mushed into skin lotion by a naked old lady.

Anybody who saw the trailer knew that the baby was going to go missing. Thomasin was playing peek-a-boo with the kid, and after a few rounds she finds him simply missing from his blanket. The kid can't exactly crawl off at warp speed, so we know he's in trouble. All that I expected. What I did not expect was for them to show us the witch so soon. I was honestly expecting the hole movie to be one of those, "is it real or are they just descending into madness?" things. Which would have been cool, but that's not what we get. I'd argue what we get is so much better.

Oh, and another thing - I've seen several reviews (particularly on pagan sites) say that this isn't really a horror movie. There is infanticide in the first quarter of the film! And then an old hag smears a child's blood all over herself and starts to fucking fly. I realise this may be because the general public doesn't think of horror as anything more nuanced than Exorcist knockoffs and slashers, but if you make it sound like a period drama you're doing everyone involved a disservice.

Anyway, from there on out things start getting out of hand. The twins - who are annoying in the way only young children can be - are acting out, saying the family's he-goat Black Phillip speaks to them. Tensions between Katherine and Thomasin continue to rise, and both parents agree she should be sent to work for another family. Caleb goes missing in the woods, only to return naked and 'witched' after an encounter with a woman deep within.

Caleb's condition sparks witchcraft accusations among the children, with the twins accusing Thomasin, and Thomasin accusing them right back. It's childish, but it has severe consequences as both Katherine and William turn on Thomasin after Caleb dies. Her insistence that the twins are the root of the evil results in all three children being locked up in the goat pen by their father. William, after his anger fades, can only pray to god that his children not be punished for the sin of his own pride.

In the night, Katherine awakens to find both Caleb and Samuel. In a soft, low, voice Caleb speaks to her and asks she look at a book he has brought. She agrees to, but first she must feed Samuel, who is hungry. The child is not a child at all, however, as we see instead a raven pecking mercilessly at her breast. Meanwhile, inside the goat pen, a naked hag suckles from a goat's teat until the twins foolishly approach her.

The dawn brings an exhausted William from his home, only to find that the goat pen has been destroyed. Dead animals lay everywhere, with Thomasin just beginning to wake among them. There is no sign of the twins. Before he can truly react, William is impaled by the horns of Black Phillip. Katherine comes outside to find everyone in the family dead or gone save Thomasin, and so attacks her daughter. Thomasin commits matricide in self defense, and wanders alone into the empty house.

In the dead of night, she follows Black Phillip back into the goat pen and bids him speak. When there is no reply, she turns to go, and that is when a low, soft voice asks her what she would like. In return for the things he promises, she must sign her name in a book she finds before her.

The movie ends with Thomasin, naked, following the goat deep into the woods, where she finds a group of nude women chanting and withing in ecstasy before a bonfire. They rise into the air, and Thomasin rises with them, laughing.

The Witches’ Sabbath by Salvator Rosa

I have a lot of feelings about this movie, although I understand that it is not a perfect film. The most common criticisms are that it is slow, and that the dialogue is difficult to understand - every character speaks in 17th century English accent, after all. (The other most common complaint is that it "isn't scary", but I feel those comments are usually written by teenagers who don't understand atmosphere yet, so.)

The pacing might bore some, this is true. The second time I saw the movie, I saw it with a friend who dislikes slow pacing, but even she stated that she didn't think the movie would work if it had been faster. The atmosphere needs time to turn gradually more and more ominous. There are plenty of shots of grey skies and dark woods - the movie was filmed in northeastern Ontario - which could be considered boring to some.

What the film gets right beyond a shadow of a doubt is authenticity - Eggers spent four years researching the era, and used period appropriate tools to build much of the sets. (I bet his crew fucking loved that, oy.) And as for the witch herself... Eggers has crafted her straight from folklore. While some of the elements of the supernatural are European rather than strictly from New England, the composite still feels genuine. (The family is, also, transplanted from England itself - the film's story predates Salem. I think that earns a bit of a pass.) In the witch scenes we see flying ointment made from an unbaptised babe, hares ravens and goats, night suckling of farm animals, and the infamous Devil's Book. All of these things are lifted straight out of witchcraft trials and legend.

Also authentic are the Puritans themselves. I remember reading that a lot of the early settlers were big on fortune telling even though it could get them accused of witchcraft because of the idea of predestination. In Calvinism, God decided whether you were saved or damned, and you never really knew which you were. You could pray until your knees wore out, but you may still have been fated for the shit pile. This, understandably, created a lot of anxiety. In the film we see this reflected most clearly in Caleb, who worries both for the soul of his little brother and his own. His father can do nothing to allay these fears, either, as he is a man who believes one hundred percent in his religion.

The family dynamics and the question of faith drive much of the story. Caleb is not alone in his insecurity - Katherine tearfully admits to her husband that since Samuel's disappearance she can no longer envision Christ's love. The twins are children, but even so seem quite unconcerned with religion on the whole. Oddly, after William it is Thomasin who seems most secure in her faith - she opens the film with a prayer for forgiveness, and insists throughout that she loves Jesus and the Bible.

Oh, Thomasin. Our lead character is played beautifully by Anya Taylor-Joy, an actress I'd never even heard of, possibly because I am old and crusty. As much as each character contributes to the plot, it is Thomasin and her growth into womanhood that lays at the heart of it. 

Although I personally get a little bored with the old "mom hates her daughter" trope in media, it makes sense in the context of The Witch. Thomasin is a New England forerunner to the neglectful babysitter of urban legend; losing her mother's baby elicits some not unreasonable venom from Katherine, which poisons their relationship. This plays a part in the suggestion that Thomasin be sent away from the farm, although economics too are at play... as is the fact that Thomasin has apparently started menstruating. Katherine tells William, who looks a bit shocked at the news, that Thomasin has started to become a woman. She is no longer fit to stay under their roof as a result.

The bloody end of Katherine at her daughter's hands is preceded by her screaming at Thomasin that she took her family - particularly, the men: Samuel, Caleb, and William. (The twins at that point are gone too, but nobody really seems to give a shit - maybe they found them so irritating they were glad they got eaten or whatever.) She uses the phrase "sluttish ways" before trying to choke the life out of her oldest child, really hammering home the conflation of female sexuality in particular with witchcraft. (Although Caleb would no doubt be in trouble for peering at his sister's boobs - Puritans aren't sex positive in ANY way - it is still the daughter who would be held ultimately to blame for even having boobs in the first place.) 

Besides that, in the world of the fairy tale the wicked mothers are always jealous of the pretty young heroine.

I will pause to say that I had a moment where I thought that Katherine was going to hook up with Satan. When she wakes up in the middle of the night near the climax of the film, my very first thought was "ohhh shit, her hair is down!" The women of the film keep their hair pinned up and covered even when sleeping, as good Puritan women do. Finally seeing Katherine's hair means shit is about to go down. I honestly thought we were being set up to see her take a familiar - after all, witches were supposed to let the little devils suckle on special teats. But, no. You should have signed the book first, Kate. You could have a mother-daughter day!

Anyway. The ending of the film is perhaps one of the most wonderful moments in horror cinema that I've seen to date.

Thomasin sells her soul to the devil. She has spent the entire film trying to be good and being rewarded for her efforts with suspicion and hostility - even her father, who seemed to wish for her to remain his little girl forever - turns against her. This is not on par with being sent to your room for lipping off, because this is Puritan fucking New England and if her dad tells the other colonists that she is a witch, Thomasin is as good as hung. Wither her entire family dead, Thomasin is left alone with a poisoned farm. There is no food and winter is coming. The animals are all dead... save Black Phillip, of course.

I can safely say that I, too, would have signed that book so fucking fast. Thomasin is a woman now, not a child, and a contract with Satan is literally the only way out of servitude to mortal man. She can either starve, go back to the colony and pray they take her in so that she can get married and pump out babies, or she can go to the most metal fucking girls' night ever in the woods. Holy shit, who wouldn't take door number three?! From a story perspective, too, this is the only truly satisfying conclusion for Thomasin's character arc.

The final scene of the film is, I think, the one scene I can understand people disliking. The witches fly, and for some that might seem a little hokey. I personally loved it, as did the people I saw it with - my non-horror loving friend, the one who dislikes slow movies, said that she liked it because it was clearly a reference to famous works of art. That is half of why I loved the scene, myself.

Witches going to their Sabbath by Luis Ricardo Falero
The other half is because Thomasin finally seems happy. She is ecstatic, literally rising above her earthly shackles. Sure she's probably going to wind up smearing herself in flying ointment made from the fat of her irritating siblings, but she gets to become a card-carrying member of Satan's army and therefore actually have some real power. Is she subjugating herself to the devil? Yes. This is not true personal freedom. But judging by everything leading up to the finale, it's still a sight better than the alternative.

The Witch is a wonderful film. It looks great, the soundtrack is unsettling, and the story functions on a few levels - you can view it as a fairy tale, a supernatural family drama, or as a feminist allegory. It reminds me most of Italian horror films (Suspiria comes to mind at once) and films like The Shining where the psychological and supernatural combine with devastating effects. 

Remember: the devil wants you to live deliciously, everybody.  Praise him appropriately.

Further reading:

Black Phillip's Twitter account

New World Witchery Film Review

Mallory O'Meara: The Witch is Feminist as Hell

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