Witch, now playing in theaters is something of a head scratcher. Just what is director and writer Robert Eggers trying to say in this movie of a New England family circa 1630? Chances are that you will emerge from the movie as baffled as I was, so perhaps its meaning (if any) is intended to be in the eye of the beholder. The movie probably won’t leave you satisfied. If there were a “downer of the year” movie Witch would probably win the award and it’s only March. Boy, is it bleak!
That’s not to say this movie about a family ostracized in their New England plantation is not without merit. The acting is quite good and aside from the parents William (Ralph Ineson, who I mistook for Geoffrey Rush) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) it’s otherwise virtually an all-kid cast. Eggers gets fine performance out of these children, some of the best I’ve seen from kids since Haley Joel Osment’s portrayal of Cole in The Sixth Sense. It is also suitably creepy in an M. Night Shyamalan way, who of course took off big as the director in The Sixth Sense. This ostracized and overly religious family (no small thing by Puritan standards) leaves the plantation to make their own path with no compromise in their worship of God. They end up on a creepy meadow at the edge of a forest that reminds me of my new digs here in Western Massachusetts. Except it is always overcast on this meadow next to the forest, and William and Katherine’s reverence doesn’t seem to be of much help. It seems like God has mark against them. Something in their dreary lives they must have inspired his animosity. Maybe it was from all that praying and prostrating of themselves.
All this is a hint to expect nothing in the way of humor or levity in Witch. Get your Pilgrim spirit on and start channeling sermons like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. For it’s calamity after calamity in Witch and actual witchcraft seems to be at best a figment of their imaginations. Still, what else but witchcraft could cause their infant son to be mysteriously snatched away from them? It certainly doesn’t help matters when their blossoming daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), perhaps as a small act of rebellion against all the excessive Christianity, suggests to her younger siblings that she is a witch. Mostly Thomasin like most of the family seems to be dealing with PTSD. Their family may aspire to be devout but needs a lot of family therapy instead not to mention some fertile land. But all they have is each other and their good book and it’s not enough.
One thing is clear: the movie couldn’t have cost much to make. One short plantation scene and we are out in the middle of nowhere for the rest of the movie. Their farm is mostly a hovel and their efforts at farming aren’t working out. Is it the hunger and malnutrition that cause them to do loopy things? William takes his boy Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) into the woods to try to shoot their way to prosperity and William only manages to hurt himself all while hiding this from his wife.
Meanwhile director Eggers keeps throwing metaphors at us that you don’t know whether to take seriously or not. A wild rabbit eludes being shot and shows up at moments of great crisis. A sign of fertility? Things happen in the woods that may involve a witch but it’s hard to tell. Is it that or is all the PTSD causing the kids to hallucinate? They are obviously not getting their daily Flintstone vitamin. Whatever is bad goes to worse and it won’t be spoiling much to say it all devolves into the worst. Moreover, it’s a violent movie and quite gross in many places.
So that’s what you get: a lot of really good acting, an intimate story of life in the wilderness in early Puritan New England, metaphors like the rabbit and a ram and — not to spoil too much – a lot of people in this family will meet untimely ends. Thomasin seems to be the one most between a rock and a hard place. Her mom suspects she is a witch and wants her banished, but is too busy dealing with other traumas to do much about it. William is trying hard to be godly and devout but the harder he tries the more nature and real life proves his better. All this plus a lot of 17th century dialog that is accurate for the period but hard to parse; it’s like listening to Shakespeare but without the poetry.
So I think you will either walk out of the theater feeling unsatisfied or you will find some solace in the fine acting and directing and maybe see a meta-meaning to the film. This is one puzzle you can’t put together. Maybe it’s a movie designed to be a Rorschach test. Maybe it’s just a mess. Build your own answer. It’s a dreary bit of cinema but it is well done for whatever that is worth.
2.7 on my four-point scale. Generally this movie should be avoided unless movies with metaphors intrigue you, you want to scratch some Wiccan tendencies (and this will likely leave you unsatisfied) or you want to see really good child actors for a change. Scrimshaw does have an amazing death throes scene. You might want to go just for that.