Review: The Witch (2016)

Kesha lost her battle to end her contract with Dr. Luke, a relationship she claims is abusive. This isn’t just about rape allegations, but about a complete dismissal of the emotional toll that a person has been sustaining; a judge can claim that there’s no proof, and that limits prosecution of the individual, but to fail to protect someone from their perception of abuse is a wrong that the public cannot accept.

This is something we see everyday. There’s a tendency to blame the victim, or to at least remain doubtful in the face of a claim. Rape refutation is unfortunately a thing. That’s not to say that it’s not always warranted – there are whistleblower laws and the right to fair trial for a reason – but that it’s a disturbing cultural trend that devalues victims. The refusal to believe, to ask for the truth even as it’s delivered, creates a cyclical event that only further victimizes.

And so The Witch makes an appearance at the perfect time, a time when real victims are afraid to seek protection from the police for fear that their claims will not only be met with disbelief, but with mockery and prejudice. It’s easy to look back at the witch hunts of New England and see a people clinging to irrational fears and turning to mob mentality violence, but turning the mirror upon our own society reveals many of the same mistakes. Robert Eggers’ film would like to show us that irony, if we’ll have it.

Eggers writes and directs this film about a family cast out from their New England town to live in rural countryside while dealing with starvation and poverty. Primarily, The Witch follows Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young girl coming into womanhood who feels the pressures of her father William’s (Ralph Ineson) failures building; she attempts to care for her two younger siblings Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) as best she can, but the loss of her baby brother Sam weighs heavily on her mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) to the point where The Witch is constantly shrouded in a pall of darkness.

Eggers’ setting is so close to the deep, dark woods of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings that any sense of happiness is obliterated by the overwhelming shadow of evil. The atmosphere is often suffocating, with uncomfortable scene after uncomfortable scene layering on the intense mood. The eeriness comes not from The Witch‘s heretical depictions of dark forces but from the palpable dread of true familial suffering that haunts the family.

Some viewers, then, will feel misled by the initial reports that The Witch is the most terrifying film this year. The movie is horrifying, but in a particularly psychological way – by Eggers’ exploration of a family struggling to keep faith in God when all around them is darkness. In truth, there are very few moments of real supernatural terror, punctuated by a chaotic violin score and quick flashes of religious obscenity. Most of The Witch is dialogue (at times a bit difficult to understand due to heavy but authentic accents) and fits of anger as the horrors of real life mount, and the slow burn can be both deliciously discomfiting and a tad tedious.

One could argue that The Witch actually needs a few more creeps and thrills. Eggers is too quick to cut away from brooding moments, never allowing the scene’s tension to completely take shape, and portions of the film do drag because of its heavy use of conversation. The Witch doesn’t require pop-out scares, but Eggers’ eagerness to cut away from the horror – from a Hansel & Gretel-style cabin in the woods to a withered old hag appearing in the dark – reduces the impact of their sporadic positioning throughout the film. On the other hand, Eggers utilizes that time to slowly draw the family away from each other with minute, delicate details – a silver cup, a black goat – before letting things escalate in the final act.

Still, the point is not that any one person is the witch, as the title’s article “the” purposefully teases, but that anyone can be witch when utterly broken, a metaphor that transcends The Witch‘s roots in the horror genre. As Thomasin finds herself blamed for the witchery after childishly harassing her sister Mercy about cursing her if she doesn’t behave, the family’s religious faith becomes a rigid restriction; Katherine wants to believe that it is not God’s aversion to the family, but the Devil’s wrath, that causes their strife, and though William doubts his daughter’s collusion with the Devil, he can’t prove or disprove it. So comes the act of blaming the victim, the unheard claims from Thomasin that she is not lying and the berating from her parents to tell the truth.

The Witch is a chilling story about how a witch is made, and though it may not necessarily be the scariest film in terms of explicit horror, its depiction of humanity’s inability to trust – to believe in its victims – strikes a raw nerve. Thought-provoking, powerful, and often discomforting in its psychological manipulation, The Witch finds a compelling – if dreary – way to muse on the trials that plagued New England all those centuries ago, and those that return with contemporary inquisitions of a different sort.

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