Marketed as a horror movie, but billed as a “folk tale,” this is an incredibly fascinating, thoroughly unsettling film with even more to offer after you’ve seen it than while you’re watching (at least, if you, like me, are a near-pathological overthinker).
It opens with a family of extremely devout Christians, led by patriarch William, denouncing their colony’s weak beliefs in a town meeting. The family is immediately ousted from the group, and the next thing we see is their wagon exiting through the front gates, a pack of four kids crammed into the back watching the doors slowly close behind them.
The family builds themselves a little farm on the edge of a very deep, very dark wood (cue spooky strings music). They seem happy, though, to be starting over alone, where they can practice their completely nuts — I mean “very devout” — beliefs their own way. They pray to the sky, arms raised, hope spilling out the edges of the frame. Life seems good.
And then a tragedy happens.
The eldest daughter, Thomasin, is hanging out in a field with her infant brother Samuel playing peek-a-boo, when she hits a BOO!, opens her eyes, and finds he’s vanished. The audience sees a figure in a red cloak fleeing into the woods with the baby, and later sees a nude old lady — the titular “witch,” we assume — doing something so horrific with that baby it’s better if I don’t try to describe it. Let’s just say . . . well, let’s not and say we didn’t.
The mother quickly loses her mind, and it isn’t long before everybody else in the family joins her. Despite their desperate attempts to convince each other it was a wolf who took Samuel, a wolf ultimately isn’t a big enough creature to take the blame they need to direct somewhere. They can’t direct it to God, so they end up heaving it up onto Thomasin.
It starts with a joke: when her spectacularly-creepy little twin brother and sister (Twins are so creepy. Signed: A Twin) come to her for comfort, she spins them a story to chill them instead. She’s a witch, she says. And she’s the one who took Samuel. And THEY’RE NEXT. You know, exactly the kind of thing big sisters do to little ones. Only in this case, the family is primed to believe it.
Now, whether or not there really is a witch is kind of left open for debate, which I appreciated. Yes, we see her — more than once, or else more than one — but it’s hard to know, and intentionally so, whether what we’re seeing is real or a figment of one/more of the character’s imaginations (there’s a scene in which one character’s hysteria infects two others like a virus, after all: reminiscent of The Crucible, and with good reason).
As my astute movie buddy pointed out, this doubt would’ve been even easier to run with had the family been growing wheat instead of corn (a wheat fungus and its effects on the human brain has been posited as a possible cause of the delusions and paranoia that fueled much of the Salem witch trials). But even without wheat fungus, it’s pretty easy to make the leap from extreme religious beliefs, complete isolation, fear of starvation, and grief to: totally batshit crazy.
Especially when you throw into that mix the complexity that comes from coupling those same extreme religious beliefs with crippling self-loathing (the two so often seem to go hand-in-hand). Two characters in this film make an active decision to “sin,” the father and the eldest son, and both of them end up pretty messed up about it later. The son even has a breakdown in which he begins speaking in tongues and eventually literally spits up the Original Sin — it’s hard to miss the metaphor there. Their beliefs can be summed up perfectly by the phrase “We’re not worthy,” and both the son and father talk multiple times about how horrible they are and how it’s a miracle God can still love them. That’s gonna mess a person up. That messes people up. Is it what’s going on in this story? I DO NOT KNOW.
The film gets a little bogged down in the middle, as the father casts blame on each kid in turn, the mother has nightmares in which crows are pecking at her breasts, and Thomasin struggles to stay in everyone’s good graces as doubt about her builds and builds. But a lot of what happens during these slower sections ends up contributing vital elements to the overarching theme of the destructive power of religious extremism. It’s no coincidence that Thomasin, the target of everyone’s suspicion, is a young woman entering puberty. We see more than once the older brother ogling her swelling chest. And whose fault is that sin? Why, it’s Thomasin’s, of course. Eventually, the entire family works to crush her, and, eventually — and horribly — that doesn’t go quite as planned, as Thomasin finalizes her transition from child to adult, wrenching back all the power taken from her in one seriously awful denouement.
This movie is both confusing and fascinating, but what it isn’t is “scary.” And I think that’s largely on purpose. Yes, we see a witch do a terrible thing. Yes, the woods are spooky. Yes, there’s a (unfortunate) lot of classic horror movie music working those long pauses into a frenzy. But this movie isn’t so much interested in scaring you as it is in filling you with dread. You don’t know what’s happening. You don’t know what to believe. There’s a really creepy goat. And when the shizznit finally hits the fazzan, it’s still completely impossible to tell if what you’re seeing is “real.” How could it be? It’s totally insane! And yet . . .
As the final credits rolled, my friend turned to me and said, “What the fuck just happened?” and I replied, “I have no idea.” And it was glorious. Later, I found myself thinking a lot about the differences between “folk tales” and “horror,” and things got even more intriguing. Horror stories classically fit into the genre of “folk tale,” but in modern storytelling, and particularly in modern American horror filmmaking, they’re mostly engineered for one purpose and one purpose alone: to scare the poop out of you.
“Folk tales,” on the other hand, are generally thought of as stories passed down from generation to generation, often rooted in something supernatural, and typically carrying along with them some kind of moral. If the goal of the story is to scare, then the goal of the scare is to teach. But what is the moral of The Witch? I can’t really answer that. Which is to say: I have about a dozen answers to that, but I have no idea what the “right” one is, and that, to me, is a sign of something really interesting going on. Is it about religion? Is it about “the patriarchy”? While I would say a lot of the imagery in this film gets slammed against us excessively and unnecessarily hard, overall, there’s still a thriving subtlety at work here. I saw this film about two weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it.
I like that about us.
Highly recommended, and you will want to see this on the big screen for full effect, I would say. Treat yourself.
Genre: Horror, sort of?
Cast: Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Anya Taylor-Joy