The Witch (2015)

Set in seventeenth-century New England, The Witch (2015) is a cumulative horror detailing a Puritan family who have been exiled from their community on account of their father’s religious dissension. They try to eke out a miserable existence on a farmstead right next to an ominous forest which harbours a terrible evil, namely a coven of witches, although for most of the runtime you’re led to believe it’s just one witch. This film has a formulaic plot, it’s essentially akin to films like The Shining whereby you have supernatural forces which cause the family to psychologically disintegrate but its style serves to differentiate it. One could argue the film is less about the witch or witches than it is about religious fundamentalism. The parents turn on their children when they come to believe that they are working with the devil. William and his wife become violent towards their eldest daughter Thomasin when they suspect her of being the witch and they are not beyond accusing their youngest children, Mercy and Jonas of being minions of Satan. Moreover, they also believe that their ram is an agent of the devil (yes a ram, though we mustn’t forget these people are seventeenth-century Puritans).

Rams get a tough break.
The Ram’s acting was the best.

Ineson and Katie Dickie (Dagmar Cleftjaw and Lysa Arryn of Game of Thrones) put in solid performances. Ineson as the quintessential patriarch of the family, William, does a good job of portraying a religiously devout, tough yet loving father. Dickie plays Katherine, the unfortunate wife of William whose baby is stolen and sacrificed by the witch at the start of the film. Dickie effectively conveys Katherine’s mental breakdown as she struggles to survive in the tough frontier environment. Thomasin is played by Anya Taylor Joy who does a superb job of portraying her as a girl that is as terrified and bewildered as the rest of her family yet who eventually converts to Satanism after a series of calamities. Harvey Scrimshaw puts in a good performance as Caleb. His acting in the death scene is brilliant as it’s left ambiguous as to whether this is the witch speaking through him when he makes pronouncements of spiritual devotion that almost seem mocking. The scene is incredibly creepy and I was wondering whether the possessed Caleb would perform some kind of surprise blasphemy.

Right from the title-card which has a deliberately antiquarian font and design, this film strives for historical authenticity. The dialogue might be offputting to some as it is completely in the ‘ye olde’ English vernacular. However, this was a highlight for me as it created a very immersive experience. It helped to mentally place me in the environment at that time when superstitions about the devil and witchcraft were taken seriously.

The film draws upon many American gothic tropes which can be found in nineteenth-century American literary novels and which were in many cases inspired by the Puritan obsession with divisions between good and evil, appearance versus reality and so forth. We have a dark wood of error to paraphrase Dante, a realm of confusion which projects the psychological fears and desires of those who are foolish enough to wander into it.

Moreover, the cinematography really contributes to this effect. The farmstead is located in a dreary and barren environment; the forest is overwhelmingly oppressive and dark. The use of grey filters heightens the pervading sense of gloom while the sequences with the witch are hypnotic and primordial. For example, when William’s son Caleb manages to get lost he is greeted by a rather attractive, vampish witch. The way the scene is shot in such a dreamlike fashion, with the vibrantly red hue of the witch’s dress contrasting with the primitive hovel from which she emerges and the darkness of the forest, conveys this sense of the wilderness as a place where repressed desires surface in the absence of a theocratic civilisation. I also particularly liked the exchange between the Devil and Thomasin, the director was canny enough not to show a goat speaking to her but instead chooses the focus on her and thematically this is a sound decision as we are witnessing the moment in which she chooses to turn from Christianity to Satanism.

In fact this is fairly well set up throughout the film as the supernatural attacks on the family bring out their worst characteristics. Ultimately we are shown that Puritanism harbours its own kind of evil, one equivalent to that of the creed of the witches. The whispered dialogue of the Devil which broke to some extent with the formal English (highlighting a liberation from Puritan doctrine?) was also very effective.

The only problem I had with this film is that the end didn’t quite deliver on what had been set up. We don’t really learn anything about the witches although we can surmise that their purpose was to eliminate the family and turn Thomasin. Some people might find it pretentious but overall I found this to be a very well crafted film with a particular attention to historical detail.

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