CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
England has lush green countryside, dotted with prosperous farms and well-kept villages whose dwellings are of stone, but the price to dwell there is adherence to the King’s Laws and the King’s Religion. As Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” opens, we are far from that place, in a rough-hewn wooden village in The New World where an event is taking place. A family whose father has chosen to dissent from the Dissenters is being banished, sent off to live in the surrounding wilderness or to perish there. The father is doughty and certain of his beliefs, the wife is steadfast in her obedience to her husband’s decision. The children are children–all except for the eldest, the daughter Thomasin who is on the brink of womanhood and seems reluctant to leave the life she has known in this gated and palisaded microcosm of humankind to venture to a place where the family will be on its own–and alone. Except that they won’t be.
Eggers could have played it safe by sticking strictly to the tenets of psychological realism and given us a harrowing tale of a family’s disintegration and destruction. The titular “witch” could have been all in their heads. But he choses a route more fraught with potential disaster by insisting that there is a witch, The Witch, and he shows her to us, racing through the trees is a long red cloak, clutching not a meal for granny but the family’s infant, unbaptized son whom she has made off with. He leaves us in no doubt of her intentions as he allows us to know that she has murdered the infant to use in some unholy rite.
Now he will briefly return us to the realm to the world of psychological realism as the family must struggle with their loss. The child, Samuel, is gone, whether stolen by a wolf, or kidnapped by savages, or taken for a purpose they can not even contemplate, but who is to blame? It was Thomasin who was watching the infant when he went missing, and so the shadow of suspicion falls early over her placid blonde features. For the remainder of the film, Thomasin will not escape from it. The family’s disintegration now begins, but rather than simply stating that the loss of a child will do this to a family, Eggers paints a richer, more disturbing picture. The eldest son, barely a teenager, begins to question his faith–far from its being a comfort, it becomes a source of distress to him–as much of a distress as the temptation to gaze too long upon the features of his pretty elder sister. The two youngest children, apparently twins, seem uncannily fond of the family’s male goat, the aptly-named Black Philip, and go from chasing him about the farm to obtaining counsel from him. But does the goat really “talk” to the children? Did a witch really steal little Samuel, or was it just a wolf? A brown hare, seemingly imbued with human cunning, regularly visits the farm, and mishaps always ensue–the father can no more catch this hare than Ahab could Moby-Dick. The son’s pursuit of the hare leads him directly to the witch’s hovel, deep in the surrounding forest, where a more dire fate awaits him than that which befell his brother.
The son and heir’s “possession” and subsequent death leads the family to its final crises in which Thomasin will finally tell her father what a worthless failure she believes him to be and will kill her, by now maddened mother, in self-defense. With father gored to death by Black Philip, the twins slaughtered by the mysterious witch, who laid claim to this wilderness long before their coming, and Thomasin herself now guilty of her mother’s murder, what’s left to happen? What new hell lurks? Well, Black Philip can finally address Thomasin as he had earlier addressed the twins, and he can assume human form as a suave, dimly-glimpsed grandee in black leather and in boots with spurs of gold. He has a book and Thomasin has a soul. When she answers his what do you want query with what have you to offer, he has his convert. Thomasin wants to see the world beyond the Massachusetts woodlands, to live life deliciously.
Now that we have as firmly rejected psychological realism as the father had earlier rejected his community’s version of Puritanism, Eggers can present us with a nude Thomasin being led by Black Philip to the Witches Sabbath where she watches as the dancing witches levitate and fly through the air with more freedom than this Puritan-bred child had ever thought possible, and the film closes with the simultaneously joyous and frightening image of Thomasin ascending into the night sky.