The Witch is a startling feature debut from writer/director Robert Eggers. It’s been some time since a horror film disrupted my sleep, but this one managed to do so. Let me state upfront that I suspect most of my fellow believers will be better off avoiding this one, and those like me that have the temperament for horror movies should still be aware this is a highly disturbing watch.
Set in 1630s New England, the plot concerns a Pilgrim family who are excommunicated by their fellow Puritans for being too zealous. They try to build a farm in the wilderness on the boundary of a sinister wood, whilst maintaining their religious beliefs, which have a rather disturbing overemphasis on sin and damnation. Amid this tough existence, a series of catastrophes befall the family, who gradually come to suspect the presence of witchcraft – either from within the wood, or more disturbingly, from among their own kin.
This isn’t actually a particularly scary film, at least not in a conventional sense. Eggers avoids the tedious mechanics of most modern horror films (ie silly jump scares), and instead approaches his subject with absolute seriousness, without a nod or wink of any kind, creating more of a psychological horror piece than a gore fest (though the usual warnings for strong violence, and also nudity, do apply). The attention to detail is what sells the film, whether through authentic costumes and dialogue, or the frighteningly well-researched, vivid depiction of witchcraft. By shooting in a 1:66 aspect ratio, Eggers generates considerable menace, particularly with atmospheric forest scenes, where the height of the looming trees generates an uncanny claustrophobia. Forests have always been scary, but here the trees seem as malevolent as the witch or witches they may or may not conceal. Performances are all good, especially from Anya Taylor-Joy as the eldest daughter whom the plot gradually comes to revolve around.
The Witch can be read in a number of different ways. For example, at face value this could be seen as essentially depicting Satanism as more powerful than Christianity. In fact, a brief online search reveals the Satanic Temple has officially endorsed the film. This is perhaps not surprising, as the film could be read, again arguably rather superficially, as a tale celebrating the abandonment of uptight, restrictive Puritan (and by extension Christian) values.
Another reading would be to claim the entire story is an Arthur Miller-esque tale of mass hysteria, whereby the supernatural elements are perhaps the result of a shared delusion, possibly caused by fungus in the rotting crops (apparently it’s possible). Again, many elements in the film point in this direction, and it is precisely this ambiguity that gives the film much of its unsettling power.
Then again, there is an even more fascinating way to interpret the film from a Christian perspective. The story seems to explore the idea that undue obsession with sin and fear of hell, as opposed to a healthy amount in proper perspective, balanced with God’s love, will actually cause believers to fall victim to the very sins they claim to so vehemently abhor. In my Christian life, I have sadly encountered people like this on many occasions.
All that said, I ultimately feel rather uneasy about the film from a spiritual point of view, even if one does take a more nuanced interpretation. Far be it from me to tell any of my fellow believers what they should or should not watch, but be warned, the finale in particular has the potential to get under the skin. It certainly got under mine.