Directed by Robert Eggers (2016)
by Francis Friel
The Projectionist at Moviejawn
Right from the start, THE WITCH tells you where it's going. It's one of these stories that opens with a scene that could go anywhere, but only lead to one possible ending, as young Thomasin and her family decide to leave their early-17th century plantation (and more crucially, the Puritan church) and set out on their own to make their way in the wilderness.
Well, that's not quite true. Her father decides this. And the rest of the family is dragged along with him. He leaves because he's stubborn, and riddled with guilt. We don't get any indication of what he's done (or thinks he's done) to turn him into such a self-loathing (and self-righteous) mopey bastard, other than he's just a super-hardcore Puritan who makes confession to god a thousand times a day. We certainly see evidence of this. And catch glimpses that he's perhaps closer to the man he thinks he is than the man he claims to be.
All these moments are captured in almost John Alcott-levels of bright, soft, dreary photography by Jarin Blaschke, whose IMDb pic could not look more like a picture of the guy who shot The Witch. Natural light, dark corners, bright windows, and flickering candlelight are all we get to set the scene and introduce us to a time when superstition and religious folklore were just as real (and as powerful) as the harsh reality you could see in front of you. The way this movie shows us the reality and extreme (seeming) unreality of these times without ever breaking stride or tipping its hand as to how much of this we're supposed to take as "real" is remarkable, and is the only way to lead us to the ending we finally arrive at.
The biggest cinematic influences on this film besides the easy Kubrick/Lyndon comparison (which I only use to illustrate how good the movie looks) are actually pretty recent. There Will Be Blood and The Master are all over this movie, from the opening rising strings that feel like they'll never let up and crawl into your bloodstream, to the long quiet takes of a man working alone at the only trade he knows (if any), to an ending that only comes out of left field if you haven't been paying attention. The greatest trick this movie pulls is that there is no trick at all. What we are seeing is what is happening. PT Anderson absolutely would've directed this movie if he'd just thought of it first. It feels like the next step in his current progression as an artist. Or, really, it would've been if Inherent Vice hadn't derailed him (and me). The arc of his early films into Magnolia/Punch Drunk Love would match The Witch as the ultimate payoff of There Will Be Blood into The Master. And I don't think Eggers is hiding this, really. He's showing us his influence the way other greats of the past have done. And he's showing us because he's saying "Look what I can do with this." Jon Glazer's most recent film, Under the Skin, is another strong visual influence. Not even gonna go near what else might be connecting the two.
But back to the farm-- The father, Will, is a sad little man trying to hold his sad little world together. When his crops die before the harvest is ready, he blames himself. When his infant son disappears (stolen by a wolf, the family tells themselves, though the kids all seem to know better), he blames himself so his wife will stop blaming their daughter. When their other young son goes missing overnight, he again shields Thomasin from his mother's wrath. But it's what happens in the aftermath of the son's disappearance that turns the entire story into a horror movie.
I used to defend David Lynch against Ebert's assertion that Blue Velvet is destructive to "women" because of the way it treats Dorothy (named for another character who met some witches). Lynch says No, the movie isn't about WOMEN, it's about DOROTHY, and her very specific experiences. But where that movie fails his defense is in the characters constantly asking themselves "What does it all mean?" They put the broader context into their own story. In The Witch, a movie that dares us to apply our own modern political or feminist context or agenda to it, we get a story that is always specific. These characters are experiencing these events, and the ending supports this and is hugely satisfying (and beautiful, and terrifying). What we get is an entire family that really feels like a family, like real people. They all want different things, all have their own feelings, all relate to each other as if they've been together for years. Will's guilt and embarrassment at all the ways he feels he's failed himself, his god, and his family, Katherine's loving exhaustion at constantly having to pick up the pieces every time Will makes another mistake, Thomasin's playfulness (and exasperation) while caring for her siblings, Caleb's stubborn frustration at not being treated like a man, like a more adult member of the family, the twins' confusion, which later reveals itself to be something else entirely that we may have missed while we were busy laughing at how goofy these two are... these are real feelings being expressed onscreen, and we can feel it with these characters every time we see them. They're all being dragged along by their father who unwittingly leads them into the darkness. Or maybe not unwittingly, to use the reality of the film itself.
Ultimately, the film works because it's always true to itself and has the cinematic guts to go all the way. Right now it's my favorite new release I've seen since Birdman or Youth. For all the talk recently about how Hail! Caesar is the spiritual sequel to A Serious Man, I'd argue that The Witch is actually closer to the heart of what that film was going for. In fact, even for how out of place it would've been, and for how jarring the experience in the theater would've become, I can totally hear "Somebody To Love" blasting onto the soundtrack after that final shot cuts to black.
And because the final shot of The Witch puts us into the final shot of A Serious Man. We witness an event happening in the distance. Something powerful, dangerous, and beyond our understanding, and all we can do is sit here and watch.