Thick accents, period costumes, stories of female oppression, and talking goats? This. Film. Has. EVERYTHING.
The Witch calls itself a New England Folk Tale and, with most of its dialogue and content derived from actual historical documents, director Robert Eggers handed us a slice of pre-Salem, puritanical patriarchy straight from the goat’s mouth. Eggers has steered clear of divulging his personal interpretations, which I personally think is some killer artistic integrity, in order for his audience to be free to create their own. And boy have we. The Witch effortlessly points out the historically sticky situation women have been in, where they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and how little participation they get in their own lives.
The story begins with a family being exiled from their New England settlement because their father’s interpretation of Christianity is at odds with the village’s. At first glance, I thought, “Heck yeah! Freedom of religion! You can make your own village, man!” but was quick to note this first instance of a man putting his pride before the welfare of his family. Determined not to be undermined, the father, William, takes his wife and five children (including one newborn) into the wilderness to start from scratch.
As much as I’d love to walk through this film scene-by-scene and break down each fantastically crafted moment, I imagine that only sounds like a barrel of laughs for yours truly. Instead, while imploring you (if you haven’t already) to see this film, I’ll bring the themes of this movie front of center. As anyone with a healthy respect of farming might expect, two adults and a pack of small children have very little success starting a new farm in the middle of the woods with no resources. Instead of seeing these difficulties logically, like Katherine (mother) does, attributing them to leaving civilization, William insists again and again that he has it all under control, taking the challenges as an affront to his head of household status.
When confronted again and again with his failures as a breadwinner, William speaks openly and honestly with his wife about his struggles so that they can support one another. No, I’m just kidding, he just chops wood. Seriously. Every single time William is emasculated in some way, he goes outside and chops wood with the fire of a thousand suns. And they say we’re dramatic. Egger’s compares his chopping wood to his prayer. Instead of taking an active role in his hardships, he turns to prayer in hopes of assistance. Now, I’m all for prayer, but as anyone of faith can tell you, you can’t expect divine intervention without putting in the proper leg work.
When the shit really starts hitting the fan (baby’s gone, farm blows, kid brother’s wandered off and gotten himself sick, mom resents dad, they’re all gonna starve), William sees that isolating them with no resources is the cause of their problems. Just kidding. It’s definitely witchcraft. It’s probably his daughter because of her budding femininity. It’s a tale as old as time: There is something inherently evil about women because of their sexuality. Here’s the real story: There’s something inherently weak in men who can’t control their behavior because of the shape of another human. The Witch executes this perfectly. Time and time again we see Thomasin, the eldest daughter, being lusted after by her own brother. It’s clear as day that Thomasin isn’t enticing anyone and that she consistently just works her ass off to please her parents. All the while their eldest son, Caleb, gets wildly distracted by a barely-loose blouse tie (on his sister) and literally hands himself over to a forest witch because she’s sexy. It’s laid out so artistically and clearly in the film, so leave it to me to ruin it: It isn’t Thomasin’s fault that Caleb can’t stop looking at his sister’s rack.
Innocent to the very last, Thomasin is the last one standing, having had moments where she genuinely seems concerned that she might be bewitching everyone without her own knowledge. She expends every ounce of her energy trying to prove her innocence, keep the peace, and people-please, and if that isn’t the plight of every woman, I don’t know what is. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we embrace sexuality and the body we’ve been naturally given, we’re sluts who deserve sexual assault. If we embrace modesty and keep our sexual nature private, we’re prudish, withholding something that is owed to men. When there is nothing left, Thomasin inquires with their family’s goat that has been a suspected surrogate for Satan, aptly named Black Phillip. With a look that suggests she expects no response, she simply asks if he can communicate. And, oh can Black Phillip talk. Without so much as the ability to write her own name (shout out to the systematic denial of women’s right to education worldwide!), Thomasin gives up her soul for the promise of butter, joins a coven of naked ladies in the woods, and lives rapturously ever after. I think the lesson for women here is not necessarily to grab a pentagram and get to witchin’, but that in a society where you’re condemned no matter what you do, you may as well do what suits you. No one will believe you anyway.
Male pride has long been the source of female suffering and it, in this film, brings this family to its demise. It couldn’t possibly be that dad’s not a great farmer, it must be witches. It couldn’t possibly be that men struggle with impulse control, it must be that women’s boobs are enchanted and must be stopped. (Enchanted Boobs would be a great band name.) If you haven’t already, watch The Witch. It is so rare that a horror movie is made to match the intellectual capacity of its fans and we should revel in it all we can. If you need me, I’ll be in the woods with Black Philip. Mac, out.