*** (3 stars)
wd – Robert Eggers
ph – Jarin Blaschke
pd – Craig Lathrop
m – Mark Korven
ed – Louise Ford
cos – Linda Muir
p – Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Rodrigo Teixeira, Jay Van Hoy
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
There’s an audacious scene in The Witch, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was awarded the Best Director prize, where one of the characters, possessed by the devil, passionately and rabidly proclaims his undying and everlasting love for Christ before losing the battle with Lucifer and expiring. The reason this moment feels so bold is because one is unsure whether they should titter with amusement or cry in horror. I don’t mean to say that the scene is somehow unaware of what it is supposed to be, because that is exactly what this scene, and The Witch at large, strives to induce: a jittery state of anxiety and abstruseness.
The Witch, astoundingly, is by a first time writer/director, Robert Eggers, and it characterizes itself with the subtitle “A New England Folk Tale”. Set in New England in 1630, several decades before the Salem Witch Trials, The Witch introduces us to a strict Puritan family – father William (Ralph Ineson), pregnant mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) – who are, as the film opens, being excommunicated from a Christian plantation due to the crime of "prideful conceit." The family is exiled and builds a farm by a large forest. After several months, Katherine gives birth to her fifth child, Samuel. Sometime later, Thomasin is playing peekaboo with Samuel and suddenly, in one of the great jump-scares in cinema history, she unclothes her face, yells Boo and finds Samuel to have completely vanished.
Even though the family remains bewildered, Samuel’s fate is then revealed to us, though it is so mirthfully disturbing that I shall not, dear reader, reveal it here. The family then seeps into a deep depression, with Katherine spending her days doing nothing but crying and speaking with God, and William and Caleb contemplate this occurrence being the cause of Samuel not having been baptized. Thomasin atones for her guilt by toiling away on the farm and supervising her twin siblings, who claim to be able to speak with Black Phillip, the farm’s restless and somewhat horny male goat.
What then occurs in an extremely dense, beautifully constructed parable on doubt and the antagonistic nature of the religious. It is filled with chilling moments, though not in the sense of a traditional horror film. It doesn’t stash away a string of revelations or a big shocking twist – as I stated earlier, Samuel’s fate is unveiled immediately. It quietly and deftly paints a hellish picture of the inhumanity inspirited by the merciless. In fact, the film’s eerie conclusion is one of inevitability.
The film’s tremor arises in the mind after the film has ended. As I said, the experience during is a gleeful one. Some scenes are so ludicrously over the top that they instill cackling rather than terror. But uncertainty is not insecurity, and despite the film’s many gimmicks, there is not one moment where the film ever feels false.
The film constantly wobbles on a high-wire of unease, not only in mood but in latitude. It is unclear at times which character the film wants us to focus on. The performances here are absolutely incredible from its relatively unknown cast. One of the film devices is that Mr Eggers has written the film in King James’ English, with much of dialogue allegedly being based on the writings of the time. “Wilt thou not help thy father?” William declares to his son.
What Mr Eggers says about God can be interpreted in various ways. What crime deserves an eternity of punishment? The Bible tells us any crime against an infinitely holy God deserves an eternity of punishment. It is not an issue of any particular crime that deserves an eternal punishment but whom the crime is against. This is the great accusation of hypocrisy that atheists hold against those who worship. If a man were to slap another man in the face, the result might be an argument or even a fistfight. However, if that same man were to slap a King in the face, he would be imprisoned. So, why does the exact same act get such different results? It is not the act that deserves a higher punishment. Instead, the different result is determined by whom it is against. So, if we move up the chain of command to the infinite God of the universe, when we break His law, there is an eternal consequence because of whom the crime, or in His case sin, is against. I am reminded of Isaiah 45:7
The One forming light and creating darkness,
Causing well-being and creating calamity;
I am the Lord who does all these.
This is what The Witch is about and I feel that whatever one’s beliefs are that what Mr Eggers displays here works beautifully as both a creative exhibit of affirmation for those who believe or a disturbing depiction of man’s greatest psychological impairment (I being a loud and proud atheist since age 7) to those who don’t. Funnily enough, the movie has been officially endorsed by the Satanic Temple, with the National spokesperson for The Satanic Temple Jex Blackmore calling it "a transformative Satanic experience".
But again, the fate of these characters was inevitable. To quote Alex Ross Pery’s screenplay for Listen Up Philip (2014): “they abruptly became confidently disenfranchised to the point of despondency.”