Subdued, haunting The Witch smartly examines the assumptions and applications of evil
The Witch A24 Films
Director: Robert Eggers
Screenplay: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson and Bathsheba Garnett
Rated R / 1 hour, 32 minutes
February 26, 2016
(out of four)
We're trapped by the limitations of our understanding of the world. What we can and cannot see; what we have or have not learned; the available knowledge of our given time and place. Not to mention our interpretation of that knowledge. To fill in the gaps, we intuit, or we look beyond ourselves, or we rely on beliefs or superstitions. We rely on what is available.
Which is not to say that The Witch - set among Puritans in rural 17th-Century New England - is a defense of the actions and accusations made toward its central character, but only to explain the very practical, matter-of-fact way the film operates, offering empathy even as a rather vile sense of hysteria takes hold. This is, at the same time, a rather searing indictment of the persecution of the innocent - even more so than other similarly themed stories (i.e. Salem) because of the organic way we see things unfold as characters' perspectives broaden, shift and distort, turning the innocuous consequential, the ambiguous certain, the incidental methodical, the innocent wicked.
Writer/director Robert Eggers' filmmaking is reflective of that illusory, fragile sense of perspective, as he's extremely careful in what he shows and what he doesn't, and how much he asks us to rely on our assumptions or our imaginations. Although, by comparison to his characters, we've got it easy - we can see things a bit more clearly, see how small moments add up (for better or worse) (mostly worse), see how a half-joking, half-irritated remark from one sister to another can be completely benign or genuinely life-threatening depending on the circumstance.
There are no winking nods to our modern enlightenment in The Witch (displayed on-screen old-fashionedly as The VVitch); Eggers takes the characters at face value, and in their own context. They are a family that has been cast out of their Puritan society, forced to make their own way on a farm in the countryside adjacent to a dark and ominous forest. In colonial America, they are already in a place they're not entirely comfortable - the mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), continually expresses regret that the family ever emigrated in the first place - and now find themselves exiled even from their own community.
Their sense of isolation only grows from there - from each other (physically as well as spiritually), from order, from their comprehension of the world they live in, even from their god - and we witness as they become undone by misunderstanding and ignorance. So many behaviors and reactions are directly about their very inability to reconcile what they actually observe with what they are told, or what they believe, or what they feel; their inadequacy in determining the right thing to do, or even the reality of what's happening to them. The agonized desperation on the face of the family patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson, in a great performance), is supremely affecting, as he wrestles with grand stakes he's ill-prepared to fully understand.
The game of peek-a-boo that sets the story in motion is an apt metaphor for the narrative's subjective orientation. The family's eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing the game with her newborn brother Samuel; when she uncovers her face for the third or fourth time, the infant is inexplicably gone. No one else is around. The woods are too far away. But the child is, somehow, nowhere to be found, with only poor Thomasin as a witness.
It is here that the suggestion - if not outright presumption - of evil is first brought forth, applied cruelly to Thomasin. And once even a false suggestion is levied, it makes it easier to accept subsequent accusations - or, more importantly, begin to interpret behaviors as confirmation of her evil. Rumors of witchcraft swirl around this area, and we know it's only a matter of time before that, specifically, is what sticks to her.
Other incidents take place - some significant, some seemingly minor, but which all add cracks to the family's moral and practical equilibrium. Reality fractures, replaced by a madness - a frenzy to expel an evil that may, or may not, have infiltrated them. By insisting on evil, they, in a sense, create it. Foster it. (It's also worth pointing out that the mother keeps insisting on marrying Thomasin off to another family, as if that will cleanse her, or save her - or, if nothing else, make that "evil" somebody else's problem.)
In the film's reality, a distinctively old-fashioned version of evil - and witches, specifically - does exist. We catch enough glimpses of a certain grotesque supernatural figure in the woods for that to be made clear. But it's more concerned with the way a moral panic sets in almost completely independent of the actual evil, and how that in effect reinforces and empowers those dark forces.
Which, more directly, paves the way for a damn good horror film. What's scariest here is not any creature lurking in the woods, or even a witch, or even a devil. (Although the devil does get his big moment - a bone-chilling scene in which, true to the film's suggestive, non-explicit stylistic approach, we hear only its silky, malevolent voice. The rest is up to us to imagine.) The profoundly unsettling atmosphere comes instead from human behavior. Eggers does not present his characters as raging lunatics; rather they are flawed, weak and desperate. Incidents, accidents, secrets, lies - they all play out so soberly, so innocuously. It's up to the characters what to do with them - how to interpret them, how to deal with them - and when faced with concepts they're completely impotent against (and unable to truly comprehend), it's safe to say they fail spectacularly. Thomasin's victimhood is not just a cautionary tale but a grim reminder of human nature. The banality of evil indeed.