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This post contains spoilers for “The Witch”.
Watching Antichrist a couple of months ago stoked a fresh appetite for modern horror films. An unusal choice for me, but I leaned in, requesting one poisoned Blu-Ray after another from my local library. I saw Antichrist’s follow-up Melancholia, and then Hereditary, The Witch, and the 2018 Suspiria remake. Every movie but the last could be crudely summarized as “A family is destroyed,” a commonality of plot I did not consciously seek, but which I found grimly satisfying just the same given the backdrop of our present reality. I want to focus on The Witch now, in part because it’s probably the most accessibile film of the bunch. Further, I feel particular resonance in its portrayal of a family mowed down in a border state by a laughing, capering evil — one resplendent in its power to do whatever it wants with those who cross into its home territory, and seeing children in particular as resources to either exploit or simply consume.
Notably, this home-viewing represented my second swing at the picture, several years after catching it in the theaters. I didn’t like it, at the time; it struck me as a well-shot series of ultimately meaningless scenes. The family succumbed one by one to a variety of misfortunes both weird and mundane, and then the final girl, apparently without anything better to do, surrenders her soul to Satan and floats away. Huh? I didn’t understand why so many of my friends loved the movie so much. But I watched it again on a hunch that I’d come better prepared to appreciate it, between my cinematic horizons expanding and the world itself changing during the intervening years. I proved myself right: The Witch felt far more coherent on re-watch — and even seemed to engage in conversation with other films I’ve seen recently.
I have one friend in particular, a true cineaste, who cherishes this movie. He expressed something like offense after I didn’t initially like it, and relished my tweeted news that I meant to give it another go. For him, the film summarizes to “The Devil rescues a young woman from Christianity.” A legitimate interpretation, and one that let the movie hit him where he lived, given his personal background. The movie carries enough subtlety and ambiguity to allow for this and other layered readings, I’m sure. I would imagine you could even make a case that nothing supernatural in the film happens at all, and the family tears itself asunder after a few bad-luck coincidences trigger a destructive spiral of paranoid mistrust, fueled by religious conviction. However, I felt entirely comfortable skimming along the movie’s surface, taking its events literally, and understanding a perfectly satisfying story from them.
The key scene for my second viewing comes near the start, as the family faces the reality of their exile for the first time. Led by the parents, holding hands and grinning with confidence, they face the forest together, then kneel to pray. The camera cuts to the family’s viewpoint of the tall, dark trees lining the clearing, all shadows behind, and the choral soundtrack ascends into a howling crescendo. I startled, not just from the sonic assault but because this image felt borrowed directly from Antichrist, and in particular its theme of nature — and the wild forest, in particular — as Satan’s church.
And here is the doomed family, praying at its doorstep! What I didn’t see in my first viewing seemed dead-obvious now: from that moment, their grim fate was sealed. The father doesn’t realize until the very end of the picture that he committed the mortal sin of pride by gladly accepting exile, rather than make any attempt to reconcile his philosophical disagreements with the rest of the colony. He couldn’t see until far too late that God is the community, and to leave the embrace of the latter means to leave sight of the former. And so, with that early scene, the family happily blunders straight into the Adversary’s own place of worship, hilariously thinking they’ll homestead there. The true forest-dwellers lick their chops at the fat lambs that have stupidly, proudly wandered right into their den.
The rest of the movie, then, merely depicts the forest-coven playing with its food. After snatching the baby to rev its engines (and giving us another scene straight from Antichrist, characters wandering a forest desperately while an infant cries from an unknowable direction), the coven begins a campaign of harassing the parents and sabotaging their crops, building stress and distraction. From there, the monsters compromise the young twins through animal-whispering, then twist the older boy into a despair-bomb, sending him back home to detonate. Now they can just let things play out, at last claiming the final survivor as their own (with the twins’ fate left ambiguous). And all because dad simply refused even give the slightest glance downward to see the road to ruin he’d set everyone on.
Crucially, the father’s prideful embrace of exile seems the only evil act he commits. The moment we hear Ralph Ineson’s amazing voice speaking defiantly to the town council, we brace for subsequent scenes his family suffering under the blunt cruelty of a Puritain fanatic. But that doesn’t happen, not at all. Within the confines of their spartan existence, the father cares for his family tenderly — and they repsond in kind, to one another, even as things start to fall apart. I would have favored my friend’s take on the film if we saw any indication that the daughter wanted to flee, but as far as I can tell, no such sign appears. Similarly, I don’t buy that she harbors any secret ill will towards her parents or siblings. In our first real moments with her, she plays joyfully with her infant brother. If his subsequently becoming witch-stew fulfilled something in the recesses of her heart, then it’s too subtle for me to catch. None of the family either desires or deserves what happens — it’s just the consequences of a single, willful, enormous mistake.
In a retrospectively delicious irony, we learn that the father, uneasily aware of the older childrens’ incipient adulthood, considers negotiating with the colony he turned away from in order to get the kids — or at least the daughter — off the hook, letting them re-enter society. So she had an escape route anyway, through essentially no action of her own. Maybe that wasn’t enough escape for her, and she wanted to leave the company of humanity entirely, but I still can’t see the evidence for it. Ultimately, I did not see her laughter in the final scene as she sails aloft as that of a woman finally free. Rather, it brought to mind Winston Smith at the end of 1984, gazing with adoration at Big Brother, his mind bent around to love his destroyer. The family’s obliteration, and the Devil’s victory, was complete.
I will end with the observation, somewhat disconnected, that the Devil too is explicitly presented as a homesteader here, in colonial New England. The witches’ coven is as much as colony as the gated British town is. This too comes from a single point-of-view shot at the very start of the film: as the cart bearing the family leaves the English colony for the last time, a trio of Indians trudges across the road behind them: on-screen for just a moment, but center-framed. With passive curiosity, one of them looks over his shoulder, into the camera representing the exiles’ own gaze. It is the last truly human face anyone in the family will see.
That brief glance stuck with me, even though it doesn’t seem obviously close to the film’s plot. (In fact, it helped entice me to see The Witch a second time, since this same shot appears in the trailer that I saw before Hereditary.) It establishes that, yes, we are dealing with colonies here, and the colonies are treating with — and displacing — a native people. The film makes a minimal but unmissiable effort to show their presence. And it all suggests the question: was the Devil in the woods before the white men came? The witches we see all look as pale as the English colonists, which rather implies that Satan must have hitched a ride over on the first colony ships, and has since stayed busy in his own effort to rapaciously claim up land and fill it with his own people. An inevitable shadow cast by any human nation’s colonial efforts, perhaps: converting the land, corrupting the wilds, squeezing out the natives, and ultimately turning on itself.
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