The Witch is writer/director Robert Eggers’ account of a Puritanical family that disintegrates as it turns against one another in the wilderness of the colonial frontier. Based on New England folklore the film was a Sundance hit, with Eggers taking top directing honors in the U.S. Dramatic category. Upon its release, the indie film earned rave reviews while simultaneously garnering a steady stream of reports about dissatisfied audience goers walking out mid-film. Critics have called it a “horror masterpiece” and have compared Eggers to Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman. On the other hand, some viewers have called it a “snooze fest” with “downright irritating” characters, warning people not to waste their time or money. So how does a film become so love and so hated at the same time?
Set in the 1630’s, the film is a story about a family that has been excommunicated from their New England plantation settlement. Now in exile, the family of six is left to fend for themselves as they live off the land. Soon comes the birth of another child, Samuel. Trouble begins when, under the watch of daughter, Thomasin, baby Samuel disappears, taken by a witch who lives in the woods just beyond the family’s farm. Devastated by their loss and at the suggestion of her younger siblings (twins Mercy and Jonas), the family begins to accuse Thomasin, who they blame for Samuel’s disappearance, of witchcraft.
It is true that there is much good about this film. Superb cinematography, well-crafted production and costume designs and a perfect creepy musical score all work together to create a look and an ambience that is a perfectly pleasing. Further, a standout performance by Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin adds to the film’s credibility.
There are plenty of reasons, though, why the film falls short. First is its lack of plausibility. The film is based on actual journals and records of the period and Eggers’ attempt to blend the historical with the fantastical would be applauded were it not waylaid by the film’s inability to convince the audience of its validity. When you consider similar movies that have taken on mythologies, recent films such as The Babadook and It Follows come to mind. It could be argued that both of these films manage more successfully to create greater realistic circumstances that aide the audience’s suspension of belief. Ironic considering that The Witch is the most true to life.
Second, Eggers doesn’t give us enough depth to understand how this family turns against one another. Through the lens of modernity, the whole scenario seems more like a big misunderstanding, a Three’s Company episode gone horribly wrong. While he begins well enough, with the horrific disappearance of a child, in the end, you wish they just would have sat down and talked it out, instead of taking the word of two bratty children that their sister is a witch; sibling rivalry at its worst. Movies like The Crucible (based on Arthur Miller’s novel), dealt with witch hunts during the colonial era in the larger context of mass hysteria and have attempted to uncover its underlying causes such as fear of religious persecution, the ongoing threat of attack by Native American tribes and a desire to explain adversities such as sickness and death. But while Eggers does touch upon the father’s worries over feeding his family, as placed in this film it feels more a nod to an historical element than as a consideration for impending doom. And while there is little doubt this is a devout family, they also appear to be a loving family, and it is my contention that we are not given enough to convince us that their disintegration stems solely in their belief in the condemnation from God.
Lastly, is the film’s lack of clarity about what it wants to achieve. A family living near the edge of deep woods, with no community, left to fend against the elements, in and of itself is ripe for a modern day thriller. Billed as a horror film, with an unnerving trailer to bolster it’s image as such, hard core horror fans were surely disappointed at its slow foreboding sense of doom and lack of ‘got ya’ moments. It’s not clear, though, that it’s a psychological thriller. Comparing it to the 2014 psychological mystery/thriller Goodnight Mommy, which was also prominent on the festival circuit, it’s notable that Goodnight Mommy made the most out of uncertainty and an unreliable narrator to keep the audience’s attention. The Witch unfortunately, loses its way as Eggers segues into vignettes about a pubescent son, the loss of a silver cup and family dynamics.
All told, The Witch is not a straight up horror film or psychological thriller, even if it does compromise elements of each. It disappoints in its melding of history, psychological suspense and art house horror and while it could simply be that this film is too complex to fit neatly in any already developed cinematic genre, it feels more likely that The Witch is a good movie that turns out not to be all that enjoyable to watch. In the end, if either loving or hating a piece of art is its greatest compliment, then the decisiveness of this film’s reception might turn out to be its greatest asset.