Sunday Night Cinema: The Witch

Sunday, February 21, 2016

By the time I was sitting in theaters to see The Witch, I was already beyond hyped to see it.

I'd first seen the trailer back in December, and had been waiting eagerly for it to open in wide release since then. Two months is a long time to build up anticipation for a movie, and this one certainly looked worth it.

But even though I desperately wanted to love The Witch, in the end, I couldn't.

A synopsis, for the uninitiated: set in 1600s New England, The Witch is a story of a Puritan family tormented by the forces of evil. It's an inspired idea: set a movie about witches in a historical time that was obsessed with them. Who hasn't heard of the Salem Witch Trials?

That much, at least, the film gets right. The setting of the movie- a remote homestead at the edge of a dark forest- perfectly captures the eerie feeling that comes with being far from civilization. The props and set had a real, timeworn feel to them.

Even more than the setting, I loved the dialogue. The screenplay isn't afraid to use archaic language; the characters use "thee" and "thou" as easily as you and I use, well, "you" and "I".

The story starts with the family banished by their fellow Puritans from the community. The father, William (Ralph Ineson), interprets the Bible differently than they do, and rather than back down, he accepts the punishment and takes his family with him into the wilderness.

Once they have arrived and set up their home, things begin to deteriorate: the crops are blighted; a child disappears; family relationships become tenser. It's a pretty effective psychodrama. 

And yet.

Here I've reached the part of the review where I can't go any further without discussing spoilers, so if that's something you dislike, then begone! Begone with ye!

For me, once the witch was revealed to be real, I was disappointed. For one thing, it happened far too early in the movie; I think that the religious struggles that the family was dealing with would have been better magnified if the reality of the witch was left ambiguous for much longer. Because this family is actually being tormented by a sect of witches, you end up being sympathetic to them; however, in real life, they were the tormentors and the oppressors whose ideology caused suffering and ended lives.

Calvinism is a brutal theology; I don't have any sympathy for it. I was raised in an environment surrounded by evangelical Christianity, and that has left its own scars on me. This probably affected my feelings towards the way religion was depicted in the movie. I deeply appreciated that the movie made clear just how important religion was in Puritan life. I loved that this wasn't glossed over. But the actual vile implications of the theology- the actual horror- weren't played with as effectively as the setting and the mood, though I will say that this movie addresses Christian religious fanaticism much better than most.

The family deals with their attacks by the witches in various ways: William is slowly revealed throughout the movie to be a hypocrite; Katherine (Kate Dickie) deals by slowly losing her religion (I want to wander off track for a minute and say that her scene of confessing that she's losing her faith was powerfully executed); Caleb's puberty makes him slowly begin to question everything he knows, and Thomasin...

Ah. Here we get to the other reason why I couldn't love the movie.

I really wanted to like the character of Thomasin. She was superbly played by Anya Taylor-Joy and I liked how the movie showed us the family's treatment of Thomasin as someone who is made to do all the extra labor with very little thanks. She is certainly unfairly treated in the beginning of the movie.

However, I feel like it didn't go quite far enough.

At the end of the movie, the entire family is dead except for Thomasin. She ends up signing the devil's book and joining the coven of witches that killed her family. However, this doesn't make a lot of sense within the context of her character's development. She's barely a teenager in the movie, and the movie makes a point of showing that she's going through puberty. Yes, she's not treated that great by her family, certainly not by modern standards. And since she's left alone by the end of the movie, it's clear to see why she might feel hopeless. But why the hell would she want to join a group of people that just tortured and killed her family?

This is where The Witch misses. The movie had a great opportunity to more fully examine the idea of "the witch" from the perspective of an outsider. Witches have historically been people who were easy to persecute: the mentally ill, the different, and women who didn't submit properly to patriarchy (among others). And here you have a girl, going through puberty (adding the element of exploring how female sexuality is treated) in a theology that is brutal to women who want to move beyond its confines. If the horror of Calvinism had been more pronounced, it could have become a fascinating exploration of what, exactly, would drive someone to embrace an outsider ideology completely opposite to what they were raised to believe. Add in the complex family dynamics and the eerie setting and you would have had an absolute dynamite of a movie.

Instead, The Witch passes an opportunity to address and subvert the idea of witches by playing it just a little too straight. I won't lie; when I remembered that the movie had been written by a man, I rolled my eyes a little. I wasn't surprised to see that a teen girl character wasn't written well by a grown man. Even if I hadn't known the writer/director was a man going in, I would've been able to guess by how her character is handled. She was never developed quite enough to where her arc made sense, and this coupled with the slightly too sympathetic treatment of Calvinism ends up hobbling the movie's potential. I feel that if Thomasin's character had been better developed and the brutal horror of Calvinism highlighted a bit better, you could have had something truly different.

Ultimately, while I loved the style (and the score!!) of the movie, and will watch it again for these things, I left the theater feeling underwhelmed. 

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