I finally got around to seeing The Witch, courtesy of an Amazon gift card. While I’m glad I watched it, I’m also glad I was spending someone else’s money. But hang on now, fella, it’s not all bad. This is an interesting movie that deserves a lot of credit for doing things differently. But also other words, which you may now proceed to read!
The film follows a family in colonial America who’ve run afoul of the local churchly authorities. They go into semi-voluntary exile in the New England wilderness, for reasons not fully spelled out but apparently relating to how tightly they felt their shoes and hats should be buckled, or whatever Puritans argued about. Alas, no one told father William, played by the incomparably gravel-voiced Ralph Ineson, that to live in said wilderness would require skills like hunting and farming, and that sometimes putting seeds in the ground and screaming your iniquities unto God is not enough to stave off death-by-no-food. But I jest. It’s not really William’s fault, but the family’s farm fails (alliteration!) and they’re struggling to get by.
One day adolescent daughter Thomasin is minding baby Sam when the wee tyke is spirited away in an instant, seemingly by supernatural forces. This is the start of the Weird Stuff, and like most contemporary horror, things are deliberately ambiguous–is it witchcraft, or just misfortunte?–until the final act. Suspicion falls on Thomasin almost immediately, with mother Katherine blaming her for the baby’s disappearance; but it really crystallizes when her young siblings Mercy and Jonas accuse Thomasin of witchery directly.
Refreshingly, we do know, pretty much immediately, that there is in fact a witch: we see her, and Sam’s unfortunate fate, right after the baby’s disappearance. (This all happens in the first ten minutes of the film, so it’s really not a spoiler.) What we don’t know is to what extent, if any, the other Weird Stuff is due to witchcraft, whether witchcraft has actually corrupted the younger members of the family, if Thomasin is somehow connected to it, or if Jonas and Mercy, who regularly hold whispered conversations with their black goat, have themselves been bewitched. It’s also not initially clear if the witchcraft is actually efficacious–that is, if there’s actually something supernatural going on. The result of all this doubt is a Crucible-esque cauldron (ho ho!) of paranoia and recrimination.
Most of the drama in the film comes from the tensions between Thomasin, Katherine, and Jonas and Mercy, with poor William left as a kind of hapless mediator. When the children overhear the parents talking about sending Thomasin into servitude with another family as a way of making ends meet, brother Caleb resolves to go into town on some errand which he feels will save her (we don’t ever learn precisely what). Thomasin insists on going too, but they get separated, and when only Thomasin returns to the farm, her situations goes from bad to, mmmwitch. Mmmworse? Mmmmsomething.
The good here is really good: the whole cast does a pretty bangup job, with Ineson excelling as the much put-upon William, and the young and wonderfully-named Harvey Scrimshaw giving a particularly strong performance in what was surely the most difficult role of the film. And the dialogue is entirely old-timey colonial-era English (though I can’t comment on its accuracy), which must have made it especially difficult. The costumes and set design are likewise excellent, with everything pretty much exactly resembling the colonial “living villages” you can see in many places in the former colonies where they reenact 17th-century life.
But there’s bad too. “Overwrought” is kind of a go-to word of mine, which I like because it conveys so much so efficiently: it implies an attempt at quality, even loving attention to detail, but also suggests that things went a bit too far. This film is overwrought in the truest sense of simply trying to do too much. The language is novel and initially interesting, but ultimately gimmicky and distracting. The grayed-out color palette definitely makes things seem bleak and depressing, but we’ve seen it too many times for it to maintain the evocative power the filmmakers seem to have been going for here. And the final act, where the Weird Stuff escalates–particularly the closing, post-climax scenes–are simply goofy, dispelling any sense of otherworldly dread the film may have established in earlier scenes by resorting to uninspired effects and discordant music. The final ten minutes or so remind me of nothing so much as Rosemary’s Baby with its mod, hyperweird, almost-comedy take on horror. This might have been a good thing if the tone was consistent throughout, but as it is it’s too much of a contrast with the rest of the film.
A final note: the film was billed as a “folktale.” In fact the title sequence reads: “The Witch: A New England Folktale.” You’ll recall that folklorists generally have some fairly specific meanings in mind when they use genre terms. In the strictest sense, “folktale” doesn’t really seem to fit. This is fine: words get used in different ways by different people. I’m not a stickler for genre; in fact I think it’s basically useless as a scholarly concept and ignores the roles of traditional narrative in people’s real lives. But maybe the best word for a film like this (time for a shameless plug) would be folkloresque. At any rate, all of this just shows how arbitrary definitions of things really are. None of it really matters. But it’s interesting to talk about.
In the end, The Witch is a reasonably solid entry in the under-utilized witchcraft subgenre that is at times difficult to watch–not because of its content, but because of its pacing, language, and some directorial decisions like the aforementioned use of effects. But to its credit, where it errs, it generally errs for the right reasons.