Tuesday, October 25, 2022

The Witching Season

 The Witch is not an easy film to like. This 2015 release, written and directed by award-winning indie darling Robert Eggers, is atmospheric but murky. Its characters speak in a sort-of English dialect virtually impossible to understand without turning on subtitles. I’m not sure how successfully The Witch played in theatres, but I suspect it’s best watched at home, with a lot of patience. It’s mostly billed as a horror flick, but there’s hardly a plethora of jump-scares here. Instead this is best seen as a powerful mood-piece, one that calls for some philosophical probing of what’s going on.

 The Witch is set in colonial New England, in the same general time and place as the Salem Witch Trials. As a student of literature and a one-time drama kid, I’m deeply familiar with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the historical drama about a time in which non-conforming local women (and a few men) were tried and hanged for supposedly consorting with the Devil. Miller, who wrote his play in 1953, was most interested in the social issues raised by the trials. In an era when the Red Scare dominated headlines, when neighbor turned against neighbor in a bid to root out Communists from public life, Miller focused on social hysteria, and on the ways in which unpopular beliefs could be pinned on those without the resources to fight back. The real demonic forces at work in The Crucible are the self-serving majority who blame weaklings and outsiders for any ills affecting the community.

 The family at the center of The Witch are not publicly accused of witchcraft. But the film’s opening scene (the only one in which we see a gathering of community members) does start with a trial: William, a proud and stern man with deep Christian convictions, is being cast out of town, apparently because his rigid beliefs don’t align with those of his neighbors. The rest of the film shows William, his wife, and their children (including Anya Taylor-Joy as a young teen) struggling to make a go of it on their small, isolated farm, set against an ominous forest.

 Given the hardships of farming life and the  intense religiosity of the family (which includes the firm conviction that every human being is born a sinner), it’s not surprising that all of them believe in demonic forces. For the children, there’s both fear and fascination in the possibility that the Devil is on the loose in their vicinity. (The young twins even make a game of it, linking the dangerous-looking barnyard ram to the demon they call Black Phillip.) But the film is not merely about the superstitions of simple folk who lack our own modern outlook on life.. Within the story, diabolical things DO seem to be going on. The first is the sudden disappearance of the family’s youngest child, a mere baby, smack in the middle of a game of patty-cake.. The loss of this tiny boy, which is never given any sort of logical explanation, propels the other members of the household into a kind of spiritual frenzy, with the father desperately trying to hold his family together against tough odds, the mother nursing her personal grievances, and daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) exploring rebellion against her parents and her hard-scrabble life.     

 The climax, when it comes, is startling but perhaps inevitable. There’s a cascade of tragedies, some mysterious omissions, and a final focus on Thomasin in that forest primeval. Cue the spooky music. The Witch is hardly fun to watch, but it gives you a lot to think about when it’s over.


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