The Witch

A striking historical sensibility and a concern with emotions over scares-per-minute allows this 1630’s-set horror to transcend the genre. The plot turns on the classic theme of isolation: excommunicated from his small settlement for excessive religiosity, Ralph Inesey’s Puritan patriarch leads his family out into the wilderness, the extreme edge of what was to become America. The setting is ascetic, a forsaken field enclosed by a forbidding wood. They are completely alone, and the ground is drought-dry so the crops fail – perhaps by ordinance from above, given what lurks nearby.

Freshman director Robert Eggers cut his teeth in production design and it shows: he paints with a drained palette, the wood dank and dense and the sky perpetually overcast. This cinematographic austerity is shot through by moments of remarkable colour, deep reds and greens that harmonize with scenes of intense religious fervour. The film was shot Revenant-style, with mostly natural light and flame, and it creates an authenticity that seeks to trap its audience in this empty field along with its characters. The effect is enhanced by the remarkable script, full of olde-world finery often lifted verbatim from the diaries of Puritan settlers. There’s a certain resemblance to Ben Wheatley’s hallucinogenic A Field in England, in that its commitment to period at times makes it hard to understand. Rather than seeming antique, however, this gives it a remarkable verisimilitude. There’s nothing like a man with a thick Yorkshire accent protesting being ‘banish-shed’ to make you feel like you’re really there.

Not that it’s only an exercise in obsessive, constricted world-building. Eggers’ film bears an indistinct similarity to Haneke’s The White Ribbon, where the fear and fanaticism of Nazi fascism was played out in microcosm in a small village decades before WW2. The ambiguous horrors of The Witch, halfway between reality and evangelistic invention, can be read as a Petri-dish version of the atrocities committed at Salem. In fact, disquietingly, the film often presents itself as a kind of inverted version of The Crucible, in that it is thematically like Arthur Miller’s play, but lacks its critical disposition.

Witch trials were hysterical, Freudian affairs, partly borne of a fear of female sexuality that transformed into sexist violence and murder. But what if the Witches were real? Would that not go further than insight, and into the murky world of justification? That’s one reading, certainly. I prefer this more charitable one: in his commitment to verisimilitude, Eggers deprives himself, and his audience, of truths that weren’t available to his characters. Perhaps Witchcraft wasn’t really real, but it was real to the people who hanged young women convicted of it, and this phenomenological truth is what guides the movie.

Viewed this way, what looks like moral dubiousness is really a triumph of radical empathy: by being attuned to his characters anguish and ignorance, Eggers demonstrates extraordinary emotional depth. He understands that fear of God is a stronger driver than love, and how faith in Him can so easily become desperation for Him. Like most great horror, there is much more than fear here.

Image: Baker, Joseph E., ca. 1837-1914,artist; Wikimedia Commons {PD-US}

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