Like magic, “The Witch” succeeds based on expectations

I have seen The Witch. Before I talk about it, I should warn that I will discuss most major plot points, up to and including the ending. Normally I offer such warnings as a tiresome courtesy, because I don’t usually find that knowing the end of a story before watching or reading it precludes my ability to fairly evaluate or enjoy it. Often, what happens happens, and what happens means the same thing to me whether or not it’s a surprise. In the case of this film, however, I had read the ending in advance online, and I don’t precisely regret that choice, but I do think it had a substantive impact on my viewing experience. Therefore: consider yourself genuinely warned if you do read further here.

Now, again, I have seen The Witch. Is it a revolutionary film? No. Is it an important one? Yes. Is it a flawless masterpiece? No. Is it wonderful in some respects, and at least quite good in others? Yes. It is something I badly needed to see at this particular point in my life. I think it is a film that some subset of its audience has also needed or wanted. The challenge of heaping accolades on this darling of horror critics: I’m fairly sure that I, Devon Llywelyn Jones, experienced this important, necessary film as I watched it, but I’m not convinced that all audience members will experience the same thing. If I wanted to simply lay the blame at those viewers’ feet, I would say, “Fools be damned, it’s a beautiful movie and that’s it,” but unfortunately the filmmaker tells a story that is so easily interpreted from multiple value systems that its light doesn’t shine as brightly as it should. A good story favors subtlety and nuance over preaching; it should still say something.

To explain what I mean, let me first place you in my own head as I sat watching the final sequence, which was without question my favorite part of the whole thing. Thanks to Wikipedia, I knew what was coming, and this tidbit of information had arguably been what convinced me to watch the film at all. So here I was in the theatre, staring with rapt attention as all the eerie moments and flashes of violence came to their resolution. I watched as young Thomasin walked across the dark farm to speak with the goat, by now an unambiguous manifestation of what both family and film alike regarded as Satan. I watched as she spoke to the goat, heard nothing, then was suddenly answered by a sinuous, tempting whisper, offering her pleasure and freedom. I watched as she was offered the Devil’s book to sign, as a shadowy figure loomed behind her and touched her shoulder, as the whisper promised to guide her hand in writing her name. I watched her proceed naked into the woods, accompanied by an alien choir, finding herself on the approach to a picture-perfect rendering of women consumed by ecstatic dance, lustfully writhing and chanting in some diabolical ritual. I watched the women rise into the air, flying, and I watched as Thomasin rose with them in her mad laughter. The film cut to black, and to the credits. I was, in a word, intoxicated. I had viewed the entire storyline as a historically grounded depiction of how the Puritans (and their ilk) conceptualized witchcraft, virtually ripped from primary sources, and the ending to me felt both natural and game-changing— because instead of allowing the Devil to be defeated, forcing the Puritan characters to lose their belief in pure evil, or clumsily decoupling belief in witchcraft from grotesquely patriarchal politics, The Witch dared to let the Devil win, and to suggest that in comparison to the religion that Thomasin knew, perhaps sinfulness should be embraced. As a feminist and as a privately practicing ritualist who also grew up raptly studying the details of Salem and other witch trials, I saw the whole film from this perspective and walked out of the theatre utterly thrilled.

My husband was not thrilled. I’ll note right off that he has a strong, close understanding of feminism, gender theory, and the significance of misogyny in the politics of witchcraft; we largely have the same mind on these things. Also, we talked about the film for several hours afterward, and just as his opinions convinced me further of certain flaws, he admitted that I wound up convincing him of some virtues. As of tonight, he said he liked it more and more in retrospect. But at first he didn’t “get” the ending, and as our conversation evolved, we realized something rather crucial. While an atheist now, he had grown up in an extremely conservative religious environment, not with modern Calvinists but certainly within a strain of Christianity that has comparably negative attitudes toward women and women’s sexuality. I did not grow up this way at all; I was raised as an atheist, and my spiritual explorations have been completely self-motivated. So as we spoke further, it became clear that when I watched the ending, I kept a distance from the subject matter, recognizing what it was on a scholarly level but forming my emotional response out of intellectual excitement— and out of watching the whole movie in a search for the thematic moments that would lead to the final payoff. Conversely, as my husband had watched, he knew that there was nothing morally wrong with Thomasin actually being welcomed to a witch coven, but years and years of cultural conditioning left him with the instinctive feeling that everything Thomasin suddenly underwent at the end was supposed to be very wrong. Seeing the film’s faithful adherence to primary source Christian portrayals of pure evil, he couldn’t help but form the impression that Thomasin was not being shown as liberated, and she had rather become a tragic horror victim.

Was my interpretation more valid than my husband’s? I would like to say yes, I would like to claim I was gifted with a more objective viewpoint, but aside from that doing a huge disservice to the man I live with, I also just don’t think one interpretation is more valid, having thoroughly considered both. The strongest stance I can take is that the ending, as a short cinematic work in its own right, is aesthetically and psychologically powerful, and that if I had made the film myself, I would have created nearly a shot-for-shot version of the same events— because I would personally like to take the things that many people today find laughable or objectionable about witchcraft, devil worship, etc., and present them to others with utmost sincerity, posing the question, “Is this not, in fact, something beautiful?” But that assessment of mine takes the ending out of its complete narrative context; in that context, too much of the earlier storytelling allows for an ambiguity of audience sympathies. And I don’t like that ambiguity, because it means Robert Eggers either created something spectacular or he created something supremely unnecessary. It means that I watched something rightly unsettling while my husband watched something wrongly unsettling.

To pull The Witch out of that Schrödinger’s box, let’s first enumerate what works in favor of the film being a meaningful liberation narrative.

  • In my understanding, Eggers himself has implied this is the preferred interpretation, so there’s some stated authorial intent.
  • The Puritan culture as depicted is widely known in contemporary anglophone society as an example of highly oppressive patriarchy. So: someone deliberately turning her back on Puritan values can easily appear as a positive development to many viewers.
  • Plenty of incidents and lines suggest or state that Thomasin is growing mistrusted within the family because she is becoming sexually mature.
  • To the film’s credit, a highly patriarchal environment manages to be portrayed without anyone being raped— not even offscreen— and without even other forms of tastelessly framed violence against women. Look! It’s an oppressive historical setting that isn’t Rape World! I found a few moments vaguely questionable, but mostly, I felt as if a male screenwriter/director for once didn’t go over the top to make his point.
  • To the film’s further credit, female sexual maturity is presented as an obvious “no no” for the Puritan family without then casting the entire development of Thomasin’s character as some cissexist nonsense about her needing to connect with her magical moon womb. Of course, to the best of my knowledge, all the women depicted in the film are cis and intended to be read that way, but as with Mad Max: Fury Road, I was pleased that the story offered no cheap shots.
  • Arguably, the ending is rather queer. After all, Thomasin becomes a witch. And what do we all know about witches? They’re… lesbians!

As for what seems lacking, here are my thoughts, though I would be remiss in pretending my husband didn’t make some of the same observations. (This might be my own blog post, but it’s also “amalgamated drivel from the other night.”)

  • I don’t think the film strictly “needed” to pass the Bechdel test, but there is little initial affection shown between Thomasin and her mother. After losing baby Sam right at the outset, Thomasin’s mother immediately turns cold. Thomasin also has a poor relationship with her younger sister Mercy; the female protagonist’s only obviously affectionate relationships are with her father and one brother. And at the end, of course, Thomasin has killed no one so far but does kill her mother. These dynamics position Thomasin as a girl whose future disaffection with patriarchy somehow derives from problems with other female characters and not with male ones. The only exception seems to be when her father grows convinced that she is a witch, and that takes a while— nor does she herself kill him.
  • Along these same lines, maybe instead of Thomasin simply overhearing that she needs to be sent elsewhere to learn housekeeping now that she’s reached menarche, there could have been an early scene where we do witness her mother’s real kindness and a direct revelation of the menarche then serves as a means for Thomasin to be treated differently by her mother and the rest of the family. We could maybe have gotten a few less shots of her “tempting” neckline that way. I believe any further attention to the fact of her menstruation would then thematically threaten the relative absence of cissexist tropes, but if we were shown this existing character development rather than discovering it in a piece of dialogue, the film would both provide context for the mother’s affection to wane and a clearer focus on exactly what living in a patriarchy means— still without anyone being raped in the process.
  • There are no indications given prior to the ending that becoming a witch could actually be positive. The probably anti-Puritan modern audience may support Thomasin leaving the faith of her birth, but anti-Puritan doesn’t translate immediately to pro-witch. Witches are still villains in contemporary media, so without giving Thomasin some scenes where she experiences witchcraft as a boon, I completely understand how someone conditioned like my husband could assume that the ending is meant to be the protagonist’s downfall. I also understand that Eggers may have desired a surprise finish and presumed the audience would supply anti-Puritan, pro-witch logic themselves, but would all audience members really do so? Really? It would be such a delicate balancing act to provide some pro-witch moments in this film’s beginning and middle without turning heavyhanded, but since the film otherwise works with such artful care, I think Eggers could have been capable and just didn’t think it out.
  • The Devil is, well, a seemingly male entity. For an “accurate” Puritan concept of Satan, something masculine makes sense, even observing that many depictions of the Devil also rely on gender deviance. But here, it’s a probably-male Devil, and that calls into question Thomasin’s liberation— she’s in his service, after all— as well as the ending’s queerness. “Progressive” Satanism in this day and age often just trades women as chaste objects for women as totally available objects, and if that mindset influenced Eggers at all, that’s unfortunate.
  • Generally, there isn’t a huge sense of the female characters’ inner lives. Male gaze rises to the top at some points in the film by giving us father-son bonding moments, showing us a man and a boy who are speakers, doers, thinkers who converse with each other, while the mother belongs rather squarely within the archetype of “religious hysteric” and Thomasin’s communications largely exist for her to be misunderstood rather than for us to learn the truth about her. I do not object necessarily to the filmmaker keeping this sort of distance from his protagonist, but because this is juxtaposed with male characters who do struggle and communicate in an overt way, the imbalance leaves Thomasin as less central to the story than she should be.

When you add up all of the above, it’s perhaps easy to see why the film is too open-ended. The Witch does want to leave some things up to the audience, and I admire it for choosing that route over what I’ll politely call the Aaron Sorkin school of storytelling, but if you try to balance this subtlety with an attempt at authentically presenting “real” Puritan notions of good and evil, you do skirt perilously close to a fairytale that isn’t quite brave enough to totally contradict those notions. If you have an anti-patriarchal belief system and you want to suggest it subtly in your movie, you could always try to just… do that. Not to leave things so subtle that there is a possibility of your audience exiting the theatre with the impression, “Looks like evil won, and that’s bad.”

But having made my point about how The Witch could be seriously improved, I would like to end on a positive note, and to encourage that people watch it, watch it again, and talk about it plenty. Aside from at least having a strong plot, the film is a marvel in many respects— exquisite cinematography (Caravaggio interior lighting, be still my heart!), good pacing, fantastic actors, spot-on attention to the period setting, believable dialogue, and a score that I absolutely adored (despite/partially because of its glaringly obvious Ligeti-esque tributes to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Everything you may have already heard about a chilling atmosphere is correct. Comparisons to the original The Wicker Man are probably valid, though I must shamefully confess I haven’t seen that movie yet. But The Witch definitely belongs to an important, fringe breed of the cinema of the occult, and despite being historical fiction, it has its finger on the pulse of what I myself have witnessed of the contemporary “dark pagan scene,” for lack of a more respectful term. If it doesn’t completely succeed, it’s still making a bold, ambitious attempt at the sort of horror that’s always needed to exist— and will continue needing to exist in the future, despite what some surprisingly liberal Puritans in our own era would ask of witchcraft. This is not the pretty, fluffy occult of New Age magick shoppes. It’s something older, something raw, and something that you only find in the woods.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.