The Witch could’ve been an awesome movie, in so many ways. What could’ve been a great social commentary, a smart feminist piece, a chilling psychological thriller or hell, even just a really good horror movie is, instead, pretty, atmospheric garbage. I saw it last week, and I’m still annoyed about it. And I’m not saying the movie will make you sick, but I woke up the next day feeling like stepped-in poo and was couchbound for days. Make of that what you will.
The first and most irritating thing by far is that they undermine any examination of the Puritanical hysteria that saw hundreds of innocent women burned to death by making the witch a real, actual witch in the woods. For a film that is playing up the hysterical mom trope for aaallllll it is worth, one might expect that the main focus of her fear would be in her head a bit. One would be wrong in this case. It clearly wants us to think about the dangers of religious fanaticism and blind faith, as the family’s harvest fails and winter looms. With every new setback, they simply assume God is testing them and pray. This does not cause their downfall, though, so that attempt at commentary falls a bit flat. The Witch wants to have it both ways and it quite simply cannot. Perhaps a different set of filmmakers capable of nuance could pull that off, but not these folks.
This movie could’ve kept its witch, even kept its ridiculous caricature of a mother and still managed to come off as a feminist piece if it had done something with Thomasin, the oldest daughter. The witch steals the baby when Thomasin is watching him, so the mother naturally assumes her daughter did something to him and is a witch. The worst twin siblings in cinema history agree and eventually, good ol’ dad even joins in. Thomasin has little to do other than look stricken as the movie goes on around her and people decide things for her. In the end, when everyone else is dead, she is spared, through no action of her own, other than perhaps agreeing to sign the devil goat’s book. She then heads into the woods to join a circle of young naked white women dancing around a fire. Because of course she does. She spends the whole film as a good daughter, doing her best Christian daughter duty even while being basically shunned by her mother and tormented by the evil twins but in the end, when everyone who can tell her what to do is gone, suddenly she’s all “Fuck it. Hail, Satan, I guess.” That is not how you Final Girl.
The movie didn’t earn that ending. I’m all for an unhappy ending, but not an unearned, unsatisfying one. It did nothing to build toward a rather sudden bloodbath-by-goat and then have Thomasin swanning of to a witch dance. Was getting her the point? Who knows! Certainly not the movie goer. I will say this for The Witch — it’s beautifully shot and does a great job of creating a creepy, unsettling atmosphere with cinematography, sound & set design. It could have used this to great effect had the acting and dialogue not been so over-the-top. I mean the mother and twins in particular. The Dad actor was actually really great, as was the older brother. Thomasin, well, she did a good job with what she was given; she gave good deer-in-headlights, I suppose. There’s not much at all to the plot here, and that is sometimes okay, particularly in moody atmospheric movies. In this case, it does not help. It starts with the family being banished, but doesn’t really tell us why. Is that why the witch / devil goat are targeting them? Are we supposed to cheer for the family or are they getting what they deserve? There’s no mystery or intrigue, though the movie really wants us to think there is. The very beginning shows us there’s a witch and its not Thomasin, so the mother’s wide-eyed pointing and hollering at her serves only to mock the mother, really. I began wishing for the death of those wretched twins approximately one second after they first appeared on screen. The Dad is a nice, sympathetic character, because he is a Good Christian Man who feels guilty for getting his family banished to this harsh, lonely life. We can’t help but feel sorry for him, since he’s stuck with a shrieking harpy of a wife and his kids keep dying. But even he turns against Thomasin in the end. Anyway, after building itself to be a slow-burning type thing waiting to see who the witch gets next or maybe who goes nuts, it decides in the last 5 minutes that all bets are off and it wants to be a different movie. Turns out, the goat the twins insist talks to them actually has been. Because he’s the Devil. Dad locks his three remaining kids in the barn with the goats for the night, because if they’re evil this will prove it? I dunno. Anyway, surprise! Black Phillip the goat is Satan, brutally kills everyone but Thomasin, then convinces her to sign his book and join him. The end!
Just. No. Bad movie. Bad. I feel like all the pieces for a good horror movie are there, which makes it so much more infuriating. Instead, some tired tropes got put in a blender and came out a bit chunky.