***1/2 out of ****
for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity
Released: February 19, 2016
Runtime: 92 minutes
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Katie Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
“The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy…” – John 10:10
For most of my life, that passage has instructed me. Now it haunts me.
The omen from John’s gospel is neither seen nor heard in The Witch, but the bone-chilling tale this movie tells is arguably the most extreme – and truthful – cinematic incarnation of that scripture ever made. It not only depicts the passage with soul-disturbing veracity; it does so in that verse’s order.
After The Exorcist became a movie blockbuster in 1973, author William Peter Blatty – who wrote the novel on which it was based (which itself was inspired by an actual event) – lamented that, in the wake of the film’s pop culture craze, the book’s original intent had been lost. “This is not a horror story,” the devout Roman Catholic said. “This is real.” For Blatty, The Exorcist was not meant to be an entertainment. It was a warning.
For first time writer/director Robert Eggers (who is not religious), I doubt his motives for The Witch are the same, but the result is. So, too, is the approach, as Eggers based his screenplay not simply on early 17th Century American folklore, but also detailed records and documented accounts of New England witchcraft from the time.
Even if Eggers is agnostic in his intent, his strict fidelity to historical source materials – and a visceral craftsmanship to match (heightened by the foreboding aesthetics of Jarin Blaschke’s bleak visuals and Mark Korven’s skin-crawling score) – gives his debut feature an unsettling credibility. Eggers’ disdain for the current state of the horror genre (which he’s dismissed as a “titillating teenage masochistic sort of thing”) is apparent in how honestly horrific his entry is. Watching The Witch, Blatty’s words still ring true: “This is not a horror story. This is real.”
Set in 1630s colonial North America, the religious backdrop here is Puritan, with a heavy dose of Total Depravity. The story opens with the banishment of a farmer, William, from a small pilgrim community for unspecified heresies. Given William’s unequivocal declaration for Christ and the Gospel (both at the hearing and in private), you really have to wonder just how strict this community of Puritans is. We never find out because, soon enough, William and his family – consisting of his wife, eldest daughter, middle son, fraternal twin children, and newborn – are off into the wilderness, alone.
One afternoon, after having built and established a farmstead of their own, the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, in a performance that’s sure to jumpstart a promising career) is shocked when, at the forest’s tree line, the baby she’s watching disappears after only a moment’s look away. The child was taken, stolen in an instant, and far too quickly for any mere mortal.
The kidnapping, we soon learn, was conducted by a woman with dark supernatural powers; a witch from deep in the wood. The baby – which she has taken to sacrifice (a cultic act we are thankfully spared, although we do see some of its sadistic aftermath) – is only the first of her coveted prey. She is not cloaked in iconic witches garb. On the contrary, when she is her true self, she and her decrepit body are naked and filthy. When she is not herself, she appears in the form of a big-horned goat, a hare, or raven, or in the apparition of what a person might lust or desire.
The family slowly descends into division, chaos, and grief, unaware that their increasing real-life nightmare is all the result of the witch’s slow, calculated work of corruption and, in some cases, possession. They seek God’s help and mercy, but their piety is born more of self-hatred than it is of God’s love. Suffice it to say, it’s difficult for the family to discern evil (let alone combat it) when its perception of God is so skewed.
As that evil creeps in, we see Christian truths about the Satanic unfold, particularly of how spiritually vulnerable we become when not in community. The wife even portends that it was in the wilderness, alone, where Christ met the devil. And as we observe how this witch goes about her conquest, we see that Evil’s target isn’t simply our mortal bodies or our even our immortal souls, but Innocence itself. Evil’s ultimate joy isn’t in the destruction of our lives, but of our purity.
As these dark spiritual dynamics fester palpably beneath the surface, The Witch also serves as a pre-cursor to the paranoid persecution that became the Salem witch trials. Except here, the evil is actually real. It goes counter to our modern rational interpretation of those events, in which we assume the witch hunts were rooted solely in religious superstition.
For this Puritan family, it’s Thomasin who is unjustly accused, but it’s not due to superstition. The evil is present – it’s real and at work – but it has deviously cast its guilt onto an innocent. For those who do not discount the principalities of darkness, The Witch makes a convincing case that perhaps, in Salem, the innocent who were executed were not the victims of mere religious hysteria but, rather, the deceptive orchestrations of people wielding the demonic.
Eggers depiction of witchcraft is potent, effective, and comprehensive. His film will do more than keep you up at night; it will legitimately disturb you. And it should. The Witch gets the spiritual nature of evil – and possession – exactly right, which is to say that adjectives fail to articulate how truly unnerving it is.
Perhaps the best way to drive the point home is to mention that The Satanic Temple (a national organization in America) has found the film’s portrayal of witchcraft so convincing that it’s hosting a quartet of screenings around the country, calling it “a transformative Satanic experience” and “an act of spiritual sabotage”.
Such pronouncements make The Witch that rare instance in which Christians and Satanists can actually agree, but for the exact opposite reasons. Anyone who views this movie as a “positive” portrayal, or aspires to emulate its rituals, has entered the viewing already inclined to evil. In truth, The Witch does not make evil seductive, not even remotely so. Rather, it shows the cunning, strategic patience of evil, before it finally goes in for the kill.