Back in February when Robert Eggers’ The Witch came out I remember being surprised. I was doing a What To Watch column for Geek.com at the time and also listening to Killer POV regularly and still had no idea this film was coming out. And frankly, I’m surprised it did hit theaters because it’s a dark, fairly inaccessible experience that drills into you.
First off, it’s a period piece about an English family trying to make it work in the wilds of New England in the 1600s. With that comes a kind of speech and dialog I found impenetrable without subtitles (which I discovered are very tiny and weird on Amazon Prime). And then there’s the fact that, at it’s heart, The Witch isn’t about the title supernatural being so much as it is about a family dealing with the potential threat of one in their tiny farm and the religious implications that come with that in regards to their particular faith (they got kicked out of a settlement for being TOO religious).
The family consists of William the father (Ralph Ineson), Katherine the mother (Kate Dickie), Thomasin the oldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb the oldest boy (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and a baby Samuel (the Dube twins). Thanks to some disputes with the religious leaders of the plantation they initially lived in, they find themselves having to set up their own farm, but not having such great luck with the corn they’re trying to grow.
And then things get really bad as Sam gets taken from Thomasin while she’s playing peekaboo with the boy. Understandably upset, the mother weeps for her youngest while William and Caleb attempt to hunt for food in the same woods Sam was presumably murdered in. As the family carries on, the twins start suspecting that Thomasin’s a witch that took their brother, an idea that eventually takes up shop with the rest of her kin.
As everyone in her life suspects her of witchcraft, Thomasin does her best to convince them otherwise, but their beliefs won’t allow them to take what she’s saying at face value. I had friends who didn’t like the film because they thought that us witnessing the existence of an actual witch actually lessens the impact of Thomasin’s journey through the film (basically, “but the mom and dad were kind of right”) but to me, there’s a real horror in the idea of the only people who know in the entire continent scheming to get rid of you, even before they think you’re Satan’s mistress. I’ve always found stories where no one believes the main character to be incredibly gut-punching. Still, I could have done without the overtly supernatural situations to leave it more ambiguous.
Another complaint I heard is that Thomasin probably had other options instead of doing what she did in the finale (no spoilers here). To that I say thee nay! It’s possible the details were lost in the complicated dialog — can you imagine having to learn all that AND making it sound natural, which every single one of them did impeccably?! — but they say repeatedly that the journey back to the plantation takes a full day, and that’s with a horse.
Thanks to the events that transpired when Caleb and Thomasin entered the woods — possibly orchestrated by the witch herself? — they were left horseless. But even if they had one, it’s incredibly possible that the young woman would not have survived the trip back to the plantation given her malnutrition, recent experience of incredibly traumatic events and the complete lack of roads. In other words, there’s no guarantee that she would have made it and, even if she had, would she want to hook back up with a bunch of Puritans given her most recent experiences?
The beauty of this film is how it draws you into it. By having to watch the subtitles, I couldn’t take my eyes off the movie, which is a rare thing these days. It’s beautiful and perfectly acted — including the animal work, big ups to Black Phillip! — but it’s also an incredibly intense and emotional film if you can really dive into it. Because of that, I think it works a lot better as a home viewing experience instead of a theatrical one. So, maybe if you heard a few negative things from friends who saw it, give it a look yourself (or watch it again) on Amazon Prime with the subs on.