02 March 2016

Robert Eggers' The Witch

This isn't a review site, so I'm not going to, uh, review The Witch. I do want to talk about it from a craft perspective, however, because it was absolutely fricking stunning, and deserves all the support, and a bunch of awards. All the awards. 

I could talk about a great deal that I absolutely loved about this film. I think, as a (former) Renaissance scholar, I'm fairly obligated to like it? From the dialogue, which emulates Jacobean English in a very authentic sounding way, to the old school Renaissance witchery, it was so far up my street, it opened my front door, offered me a cup of warm goat's milk, and is now my roommate. I could say a lot about its incredible aesthetic and the familiarity of the woods where it was filmed and the way those woods are now super super creepy to me. Yay! I would also praise its lack of jump scares and the way the fears it evoked were so essential to the experience of being human, it barely required its supernatural elements.

But I want to talk about its characters, or rather, about how it drew those characters. 

It would be easy, in a film that featured a Puritan family cast out of its New England settlement (for being too Puritan? Not Puritan enough? the answer is unclear, and does not matter to the story), to fall back on lazy stereotypes. It would be easy, super easy, especially in the context of a film about women and their power (or lack thereof), to make the father a thundering, Bible-thumping patriarchal monster, and the son a little monster in training. It would be easy to make the teenage girl petulant and hungry for something different, and the mother a powerless wreck. 

The Witch never, never allows itself to be lazy. 

It never forgets that before whatever else they are, its characters are human beings with close, loving bonds to each other. It never forgets that above all else, these are people in trouble, caught in a terrible situation that might have, at one point, been of their own making, but has gone far, far beyond that, into something completely obscene.

Instead of a thundering, Bible-thumping monster dad, we have a man who is trying to hold his family together, trying and failing, disastrously so, to make their farm work. He's as scared as anyone else about what's happening, and it shows. The older son is as caring and earnest as any of the other characters, even as he's clearly conflicted about the white lies that circulate all around him, and his budding sexual interest in his older sister. The teenage daughter--and our point of view character--struggles for autonomy even as she plans to fight to stay with her family, and, eventually, struggles to be believed. Everyone in this film has multiple motivations running simultaneously, and, with each new development, as the trouble deepens, each one of them ticks over into a new mode of being, more desperate and frightened than they were before. 

Never--and if you know horror movies, you know how hard this is to pull off--never do they lose their humanity. Even when it might be better for them if they could. This film hurts as much as it frightens. That's saying something. 

I can't say enough about how wonderful The Witch is. As a study in finely drawn characters (the finest), it's worth having a look. 


Anonymous said...

Interesting post! I haven't seen this yet but would really like to.

Just stopping in to say hi and good luck on the A to Z Challenge!

Monster-in-Residence at Part-Time Monster
Member of Stormy's Sidekicks A to Z Team

Elizabeth Twist said...

Hi parttimemonster! Nice to meet you.

Captain Jill said...

I wanted to see this when it first came out. Your review makes me want to make sure to get to it soon. :-)