Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wouldst Thou Like to See the World?

[There are heavy spoilers for The Witch throughout this review]

Early in The Witch, the new horror film that is the feature debut of writer/director Robert Eggers, a baby disappears. By this I don't mean the infant boy's crib is discovered empty one morning -- I mean that while his teenage sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peek-a-boo with him out in the yard that stretches from their family's secluded farm in Colonial-era New England to the vast woods beyond, between closing her eyes and opening them, the baby, named Samuel, who had been on the ground, on a blanket, on his back, looking up at her, vanishes. Bewildered, Thomasin tells her parents William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), and they attempt a search (and it's only the family who is able to search; there is no one else in this part of the country near enough to ask for help), but it comes to nothing. The assumption is that a wolf has taken Samuel, but the viewer of The Witch knows different. Shortly after the disappearance, Eggers cuts from the farm location to somewhere else, somewhere perhaps in those woods. We see Samuel, with a knife being brought slowly down over him. Soon after that, we see the figure who'd wielded the knife, an old woman, a witch (Bathsheba Garnett), chunks of bloody flesh in a pile near her, grinding these chunks, and presumably other matter, with a mortar and pestle.

If, after that, you're given to assume that just about anything goes in The Witch, you wouldn't be far wrong. Eggers's film is the most relentlessly, even cruelly unsettling horror film I've seen since Lars von Trier's Antichrist came out in 2009. It's absolutely mesmerizing in its horror, Satanic in its imagery; it shows an understanding of the genre's potential that pretty much no other current horror filmmaker appreciates, in almost every frame. I liked it. I thought it was good.

The Witch has been much talked about, and was released wide, riding a wave of hype that many people were bound to think was undeserved, such is the nature of hype, but that sort of disappointment rarely has much to do with the film one is being disappointed in (such is the nature of disappointment). Still, some kind of backlash, whether stemming from honest objections to the film itself, as some of the criticism doubtless has, or from...something else, was inevitable. Currently, the big complaint people are having with The Witch is that it "isn't scary." Many of these people, from what I've seen, also consider the film "boring" and "so bad." I have no plans to address those criticisms here, because, in the parlance of our times, "I can't even," which in this case is short for "I can't even fucking live in this world anymore if this is the kind of conversation that's going to dominate, please God, ease my pain, I'm sorry for swearing."

So that shit can fuck off. It's boring and so bad, etc. What interests me more is trying to describe my own reading of the film, which, while I know is at least on some level shared by others, is nevertheless not the "interpretation" (and those quotation marks are more precisely used here than is the norm) that most people who've seen The Witch seem to favor. And please understand, by pointing that out, I'm not trying to toot my own horn -- I'm still arguing with myself about this movie. Plus, when I brought this whole thing up on Social Media the other day, I used a rather more absolutist tone than I should have. It is foolish to claim, or to imply, as I did, that what I don't see in The Witch isn't there at all. In fact, it would not shock me in the least to discover that among the people who disagree with my take on the film is Robert Eggers himself. I haven't bothered to find that out one way or another, because, and I mean this with all due respect, and I think he would understand, on a fundamental level I just don't care. The Witch carries for me a very specific power, and like anyone who finds a piece of art that matters to them, and whose love for it comes from somewhere not shared by everyone, I'm not interested in being told I'm "wrong" by the artist.

But anyway. I'm starting to sound defensive. The first thing to do is make clearer what The Witch is, as a story. The family in the film, in addition to the aforementioned parents William and Katherine, Thomasin, and poor Samuel, also includes Thomasin's younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who's about eleven or twelve, and their younger twin brother and sister, named Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger). Having been cast out from an established New England colony for reasons that aren't quite clear, but which seem to have something to do with objections William has to the colony's religious practices, William is forced to set his family up on a secluded patch of farmland outside of recognized society. I think it's possibly a leap to assume that what William demands is that the colony be more strict in this regard, but he is a devout man, and he wants to raise an equally devout family. He is not a cruel person, though. No one in his family is, but Katherine is sad because she misses England, where they're from, and since leaving the colony their lives have become immeasurably harder. Food is scarce, and there's no money. William is frustrated, ashamed, and demanding, but loving. Caleb and Thomasin seem to be the happiest, but their ages put them at just about the beginning and just about the end of puberty, so there's that to deal with, in the 17th Century, in a Puritan family. A state of affairs that Eggers depicts without judgment, by the way -- shockingly, he allows for the possibility that such people might, hundreds of years ago, simply be counted as regular people. Anyhow, perhaps because of their shared adolescent feelings, with no outlet for them at all, Caleb and Thomasin are very close, and protective of each other.

The problem is Jonas and Mercy, though that they are a problem, and not merely a typical younger-sibling nuisance to Thomasin, is not recognized until late in the film, and even then the focus never goes to them. Which is interesting. Before getting to that, though, I should say that the problem is that they seem devoted to -- in a way that at first seems teasing but by the end of The Witch could perhaps best be described as joyous -- to a goat that belongs to the family, a large black and brown goat named Black Phillip. Two things we don't know about Black Phillip is how long the family has owned him and who named him, and I think it means something that we don't know these things. In any case, thoughts and accusations and indications of witchcraft, and of the presence of an evil witch in the woods that abut the family farm, begin to overwhelm the family, and at the center, eventually, is Black Phillip.

The core characters in The Witch are, arguably, Caleb, Thomasin, and William, their father. By the end of the film, it's not so arguable that Thomasin is the lead, but for a good portion of the movie the perspective shifts between those three. At one point, I was certain that Caleb was the protagonist, but no. That the protagonist ends up being Thomasin is significant for all sorts of reasons, but the main one is that by choosing her, Eggers has created a film that almost begs to be read one of two ways: as feminist, or as misogynist. I think the misogynist reading is barely worth mentioning, though I can understand where it comes from. Before proceeding, I should say that this sort of reading of The Witch -- and I don't necessarily mean the feminist, misogynist, or religious hysteria (more on that one in a bit) readings, but the general approach to accepting a political or social subtext as a given -- is what I object to. But back to the point: though I reject the feminist reading (or rather, I should say I don't find it interesting, about which, again, more later) it is precisely that reading that renders the belief that that the film is anti-feminist nonsensical. Because there are two obvious approaches to the feminist interpretation, and to describe them will mean telling you how the film ends. So I'm spoiling the whole thing right here: we know there is a witch, and it destroys the family. It brings fear and distrust and paranoia into the family, and brings black magic and death to them through Black Phillip. One by one, the family members die, or are killed, until only Thomasin, who has borne the brunt of her family's accusations of witchcraft, remains. She goes to Black Phillip and demands counsel, at which point Black Phillip, who it must be assumed is literally the Devil, asks her "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?" She has nothing left, and she says yes. At the end of the film, naked and covered in blood, she ascends into the night sky in the company of other witches, in a furious Black Sabbath nightmare.

The feminist reading of this can go either way. Earlier in the film, as the family's hardships increase we learn that the parents are considering hiring Thomasin -- giving her away, essentially -- to another family, to work as a servant, as a result of which Thomasin's family will be given some amount of money. This was a common practice hundreds of years ago, which doesn't change the fact that being a young woman of no means, or even who is simply not rich (and even if she was...) in the 17th or 18th or 19th or etc. century was an effectively impossible and hopeless situation. You were permitted to decide nothing. So, in The Witch, you can take the fact that Thomasin ends up as she does as a metaphor for the idea that young women in a Puritan society were, one way or another, doomed. Or, given the quite frankly horrifying look of ecstasy that sweeps across Thomasin's face before Eggers cuts to black, you can decide that this is what it took (not literally of course) for a young woman in a Puritan society to gain her freedom (this has certainly been the Satanist reading of the film, which is something you can look up, but that press release was as predictable as the Satanists probably believed it was going to blow all our minds). It's a genuinely repellent take on The Witch if you happen to celebrate that ending, not least because in order to get the ball rolling so that it stops with Thomasin in the throes of Satanic freedom, you have to first kill a baby and grind its body into paste. I don't imagine that taking the "you can't make an omelette" approach to social concerns this far is something we're really prepared for, even within the boundaries of fiction.

The other one, about Puritan societies dooming women, is more supportable (by the way, I should say here, if there's another way to approach a feminist reading of The Witch, please let me know), but it's complicated by the details of the film itself. How would this family have fared had they been able to stay in the colony, which is very clearly also Puritan in nature? How, more specifically, would Thomasin have fared? Maybe not well, but surely not this badly. This family is placed in a very specific situation, one that, if not unheard of (and obviously it wasn't), was still not the norm -- in the bulk of the film, they are living a life that was quite literally outside of regular colonial society. So the broader critique that hundreds of years ago Puritans should've been different doesn't even really apply. Furthermore, the men in the film are not bad people. Caleb is, quite frankly, a wonderful little boy who is very confused and as in danger of being harmed by Puritanism as Thomasin (however, instead of being damaged by Puritanism, he's killed by Satanism). And William, the father, is a weak but caring man. You could argue, and you should because it's a good point, that if Robert Eggers wanted to use the horror genre to construct a metaphor about patriarchal tyranny in Colonial America, but wanted to remain a good artist while doing so, he would create a father character who was not some cartoonishly abusive brute, but would instead show that even a caring man in that environment would have been insidiously, and unavoidably corrupted. However, when the charges of witchcraft begin falling on Thomasin, the one person in the family who refuses to believe she's guilty without strong evidence (outside of Caleb, who by then has been incapacitated) is William. This is perhaps taking it beyond subtlety and into the realm of, to paraphrase Jake LaMotta (I see the irony of that one, by the way), defeating its own purpose. If such was Eggers's purpose, which I clearly don't think it was.

But what about religious hysteria? And what the hell is my reading of The Witch anyway?? Well thank Christ, because those two things dovetail pretty neatly. To begin with, it's important to know that as the end credits of the film begin, there's a card that informs the audience that all the specifics of The Witch -- all the horror of it, is the implication -- is taken directly from actual New England folktales (and a lot of the dialogue, which is wonderfully rich and archaic, is taken from those same folktales, as well as journals from the era). I'll admit that I'm forced to take Eggers's word for this, but either way what becomes, to me, fascinating about this movie upon reading that is the idea that, as far as I know, for the first time in the history of the American horror film, a film was adapted from the very basic roots of fiction, before there even was a horror genre. The body of the horror genre is supported by two spines: superstition, and the fear of death. A certain sophistication, on which we continuously pride ourselves, has transformed the superstition part from a system of belief (and here I don't mean religious faith, but rather a belief in malevolent supernatural creatures such as, to pick a random example, witches) into what a lot of people writing about genre would call "formula." Or tropes. In horror, what Puritans, and others around the world from a variety of societies, once literally believed has now become a series of plot engines (as a lifelong fan of horror, I should probably add "when used poorly," but in order to explain why The Witch is unique, let's just generalize, since that is, of course, easier). Whereas our fear of death is as literal and present and hatefully consistent as its ever been. As I think I've indicated, many people approach horror as a sort of cloche beneath which they will find Metaphors About Our Nation Today and Social Commentary Of A General Sort, but while God knows there's loads of that stuff to be found throughout the genre's extremely long history, the constant, I mean, the absolute constant, metaphor within the genre, to the degree that it's not so much a metaphor as it is a synonym, is the fear of death. You can boil away everything else, but that one's not going anywhere. Unless you're one of those people who claims to not fear death, in which case: teach me. I want to learn.

Of course, in horror you can't just pass away in your sleep. You have to be killed by something or someone, which implies evil, malevolence, which, in turn, at least in this context, implies superstition. Superstition created the folktales on which The Witch is based. Superstition, in most cases, also suggests that some form of hysteria is behind it, and with this film, you have a very specifically archaic Christian worldview to draw from (and really, I can't think of anything that could be labeled by anyone as superstitious that doesn't have as its core some sort of spiritual component). But how can the film be about Christian religious hysteria, or any kind of religious hysteria, when in the world of the film those beliefs that we might deem hysterical are shown to be literally true? Not only that, but the audience knows them to be true before the victims in the film even suspect them to be present in their lives at all? They're not being hysterical: they've actually figured out the truth.

Very often, I've found that people don't like taking the horror parts of a horror film at face value. They like to say everything weird took place only in a given character's head, or in any case we shouldn't take it -- the vampire, the ghost, the demon -- seriously as a thing itself because it doesn't exist in our world and therefore can only gain meaning if were able to find things beneath it. They call this "subtext," and it is The Ultimate Good when it comes to genre fiction -- it's the excuse for genre fiction. That's if you think genre fiction needs to be excused, and possibly because good genre fiction is often so appealing on a visceral level, excuses must be made. I do sort of think that the nadir (or apex, depending on the exact way you're interested in this sort of thing) of this is in the theories that swirl around Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. And I'm not talking just about Rodney Ascher's documentary Room 237, although God knows that did a pretty good job of distilling it all. I'm talking about the kind of thing I read all the time about that movie, that the ghosts in it aren't real, they're only in the mind of Jack Torrance because he's insane, and, er, later, they're also in the head of Wendy Torrance because she's so scared? But that kid really is psychic because that shit can't be explained away. So people pick and choose what's metaphorical and discard what they can't fit in. Meanwhile, the most interesting theory about what The Shining means is the one about the alcoholic writer and the haunted hotel that possesses him. The film is about the doom of Jack Torrance. I believe this take on the film might be regarded as shallow, but to me it is not only deep; it's what (more-or-less) traditional narrative art is. The question, to me, isn't "What more do you need," but rather "What else matters?"

Look also at Bill Paxton and Brent Hanley's Frailty from 2001, which leads the audience to believe that Paxton's character is murdering innocent people, and teaching his young sons to do the same, because he's suffering from a fanatical religious delusion that these people are in fact malicious demons, only, in the end, to reveal that those people were, in fact, malicious demons. This bothered many viewers because it implied a justification for murder, I guess, but given the tradition of the genre you might as well judge Abraham Van Helsing as equally immoral. The point is, for many, all of this has to mean something else. Frailty has to be about the wrongness of religion, not about demons on Earth, otherwise what are we even doing this for? There is no meaning within the specifics of the story itself. See also Antichrist, which I mentioned I think about a week ago, a film that, like The Witch, was also reduced to being a collection of social issues that Von Trier had the wrong opinions about, but which was rarely, from what I could tell, approached as a horror film, even though that's what it was, and it was the exact particulars of that horror story that explained what that film really was (see here for more on that one). What's important isn't what we decide that Antichrist is about -- what's important is what Antichrist is actually telling us it's about.

And so, The Witch. And so, Thomasin, and her fate. Except, hers isn't the only fate we witness. We see what happens to her father, William, and her mother, Katherine. We see what happens to Caleb (and what a striking piece of metaphysical terror that is). Thomasin's fate, and life, can be connected to all of these. You can bind them, in a lot of ways, or anyway a few ways, to whatever interpretation you'd like. However, we don't know, finally, where Black Phillip came from. We don't know who named him. And we don't know what happened to Jonas or Mercy. All along we've been given reason to suspect that they are the key. These two little five or six or seven-year-olds. But they were the Devil's way into this family. Them, and the baby. The youngest and most innocent, yet also the least convinced or interested or able to understand religion or its possible excesses, or their Puritanical lives. They are children with no experience with which to form a subtext, and that's why all of this happens.

Strip away the rest. The Witch is horror in its purest form.


highwayknees said...

Brilliant review. I thought it was strange that you didn't see the twins' fate at the end, but the more I think about the film I now see that as the key. I expected the film to end as Thomasin walked into the forest and that the screen would go black leading us to suppose that she had become a witch. But the last scene really added to the film with it's display of the witches' sabbath. I wasn't expecting that, and so it was like the added bonus that left you with a sense of wonder. Great film, but a slow burner that surely left a lot of people perplexed.

Tommy said...

A good read on a flick that left me as unsettled as anything I've watched in some time. You mentioned "A state of affairs that Eggers depicts without judgment, by the way -- shockingly, he allows for the possibility that such people might, hundreds of years ago, simply be counted as regular people." Perhaps oddly, this impressed me most. They're depicted without comment or some other wink at the camera, and the parents are portrayed by Ineson and Dickie deftly, without falling into some sort manner of cartoon.

Colin Biggs said...

Thank you for articulating all the thoughts that I couldn't quite put together at the time. I don't think Thomasin's choice to join the witches at the end is as celebrated as some writers have suggested.

Jonathan Stover said...

Great, thoughtful stuff. Given the Calvinist beliefs of the father and mother, one of the other implied horrors to think about is that the whole thing is also a Christian horror of predestination: no one has any choice in anything because one's status as saved or damned is already established at birth. Or, alternately, one believes one's status is already determined. There's a lot going on, in any case.

Anonymous said...

That was a brilliant review. I like your last para. That the youngest and most innocent are evil's way into the story much like the role of the children in the novel 'Turn of the Screw'.

Michael M. Hughes said...

I appreciated the references of Antichrist, which I believe is one of the best horror films in decades.

I found the ending of The Witch to be joyous, and I don't think it is invalidated by the earlier murder of the child, although I can see how some could not get past that. Thomasin gains her freedom from the patriarchal, fundamentalist hell of her family and literally ascends into the air with her new sisters. That wasn't terrifying, IMO, but thrilling and unexpected, and I was smiling as the scene unfolded.

No, I am not a Satanist :-). But after the brutal grind of the rest of the film, that ascension felt like freedom. The sabbat scene is the opposite of the constricted Puritan nightmare the young woman has lived through—she escapes that world to find anarchy, chaos, lust, and ecstasy. It echoes the rites of the bacchantes, which were also bloody and ecstatic, as well as playing on the darkest fears of the Church about women's power and sexuality.