When I saw The Witch several months ago at TIFF 2015, I was already pretty hyped up after having read the reviews out of Sundance several months earlier. The experience didn’t disappoint. The film delivered on its promise of a truly rich and creepy atmosphere, lush visuals, a viscerally affecting score, an impressive level of attention to detail and period accuracy, and a story that would get under your skin and scare you in a refreshingly more profound way than the average new release jump-scare shocker.
And yet, and yet.
Even though it’s a visually stunning film with haunting music and great performances, I left the theatre feeling uncomfortable about something that I couldn’t put my finger on for several days. Eventually, it dawned on me.
My problem with The Witch is that there’s a real witch in it. Or many witches, as you discover by the time you get to the admittedly striking final moments of the film. Many reviews have singled out the ending as especially powerful. And I would agree with them, if the film hadn’t made such a point of highlighting its own historical accuracy (the opening credits even mention that much of the dialogue is lifted directly from accounts of the time).
We all understand that the persecution of witches in our history had far less to do with magic and spells than it did with the subjugation of women. It may not have been the way that the people of the 17th century saw it, but it is obvious to us today that women were persecuted for witchcraft because their voices and their sexuality were seen as dangerous, unwieldy and terrifying to puritanical society – and not because they were actually Satan’s hench-women. The Witch pulls a weird bait-&-switch on this point.
Robert Eggers is fully aware of the above, and The Witch treats Thomasin’s budding, pre-teen sexuality, and her brother’s and father’s fear of it with great subtlety and care. Eggers makes it excruciatingly obvious just how much the simple fact that she is a woman will harm and undermine Thomasin in life. It isolates her from her family and sets her up to be persecuted for something she isn’t guilty for. It’s a no-win situation and it’s really well done.
The exhaustive research and painstaking execution of every historical detail are so obvious in The Witch that every conflict between Thomasin and her siblings or parents seems like a stark, honest snapshot of injustice. That is, until you get to the end and think back on the entire story as perhaps a lengthy and methodical recruitment process of a new, young witch into the local coven. Then, all of a sudden, you might see that her family members were right to fear and condemn her, because even though she may not have realized what was happening to her – it was happening.
It’s like saying “yeah, we made you think that this was about keeping women down but actually this persecution … it’s justified, because those women are actually witches and they are in league with the devil.” Whether intentional or not (my bet is: not), that feels like a wrong and jarring conclusion to arrive at.
Was it just me? Did anyone else have this reaction?