I walked into The Witch with a clear set of expectations. I thought I was about to see a classic fable that would pit the power of our pagan matriarchal origins against the oppressive hammer of Christianity’s patriarchal fundamentalism, and see the women rise victorious. I was proven wrong, arguably in the best of ways.
We open on William, an insufferable father of five whose ideas are way too controlling and conservative, even for a puritan settlement. They ask him to chill, but he’d rather move his entire family away from food, safety, and security so he doesn’t have to admit defeat. Their foray into single homestead living doesn’t go well: babies disappear, crops fail, and the traps aren’t filled. Rather than admit that he’s woefully out of his depth, he presses on. The stress of impending starvation and isolation sends the family spiralling into religious hysteria and superstition, much of it linked to the assumption that the eldest child, Thomasin, is a witch.
William’s story is the embodiment of the popular “Death by Macho” phenomenon, in which a man would rather risk the lives of those around him than be proved wrong. His continuing emasculation and failure as a colonizer becomes a central theme in his losing battle with nature (feminine power), illustrated brilliantly with increasingly frantic wood chopping tantrums. What starts as a normal woodpile becomes a mountain, as William becomes more and more desperate to dominate the land, and it’s this mountain of wood that eventually crushes him. To further the impotence metaphors, he can’t fertilize the land, a nod towards the traditional role of witches as providers of abortion and birth control methods, a subversion of male power that made them so terrifying to men. Other images of barrenness pervade the story as well: blood where there should be milk, dead chicks inside eggs, crows nursing at the breast, and rotting crops. Try as William might to take down the forest and tame the land, it grows stronger around him, while he grows weaker.
That’s not to say that the story is on the side of nature, nor the witches. I went into the film expecting the witches to act as liberators and fundamental Christianity to be made the bad guy. But the truth is, the film portrays them both as bad guys. The witches are evil by choice, and Christianity is evil by ignorance. The witches grind up little babies and rape little boys, while fundamental Christianity slowly drives everyone to starvation, insanity and death. And these two belief systems demonstrate the only two choices women had at that time. You could either put your head down and doom yourself to a colourless life of duty and religious guilt, or writhe around in baby’s blood under a full moon.
Often, there’s an assumption in film that witches will somehow end up being good, or beautiful, or the redeemers. Here, the witches are old. They’re ugly. They’re evil and powerful, and there’s no apologies made for either thing. These witches will eat your your family right in front of you. It’s a sharp contrast to the meek, devout, chaste womanhood of Thomasin and her mother. In Christianity, womanhood something that must be contained, dominated and controlled. In the forest, womanhood is a power that must be unleashed.
Director Robert Eggers does a brilliant job of putting you in Thomasin’s shoes throughout the film, as she’s tempted by the forest and what it could hold for her. The audience endures ceaseless bible quotations, prayer and unnatural wholesomeness, meanwhile Eggers manipulates our eyes with his use of anemic colour palettes, cold lighting, and uncomfortably tight spaces. After 90 minutes of gruelling claustrophobia, washes of grey landscapes and lack of food, the gently twinkling chimes and warm, rich palettes of the Devil are perfectly seductive. At this point, both you and Thomasin are absolutely ready to follow Satan’s IG and take a trip to hell Coachella if it means the family shuts up and you can eat. And, in fact, Thomasin literally sells her soul for butter and a dress. (To be fair, Wahab Chaudrey could get my soul by reading the phonebook). It’s a shocking climax that serves as both relief and dread, putting marginalized groups in the spotlight, while maintaining a fixed gaze at oppressors.
So, yes, the witches win again, but they have to take such drastic, dastardly measures to do so that you can’t quite champion them. At the same time, you can’t blame Thomasin, or any women of the time, for being tempted by them. Hey, better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, right?