Monday, October 31, 2016

Thoughts on "The Witch"

I've heard for a while now how great The Witch (sometimes stylized as "The VVitch") is, so I finally sat down to watch it on Netflix on Friday, and it was nothing like I expected it to be. At first I was ambivalent about the movie but as the hours passed, I couldn't shake it and gave it more thought.

Right away, I can say that it's guaranteed to divide opinions, despite the 91% score it holds on Rotten Tomatoes. The Witch is not a typical horror movie, but what I'd call art-house horror. There isn't much in the way of jump scares, rather relying on atmosphere and a sense of claustrophobia to unsettle the audience. That the characters speak in period-correct English also adds to the other-worldly ambiance.

On the surface, The Witch is about a Puritan family in 17th century New England who get kicked out of their settlement for being too religiously zealous...for Puritans. They settle outside of town on their own homestead and have a hard go at surviving. Oh, also, there's a witch out there in the neighbouring woods picking them off.

But the real story here is deeper than a simple witch tale. Spoilers follow.

So we have the father of the family, William, literally being holier-than-thou to the rest of the community, telling them he understands the faith more than they do. It's a kind of "you can't fire me because I quit" scenario, where William leaves, taking his family to the edge of a forest to build a new home. He thinks he knows best for his clan but it turns out he's kind of clueless. His religious fervour has put his family in jeopardy because he can't hunt and he can't grow food worth a damn. Even without the witches out there, this family was doomed, and he's too proud to make amends and go back to the community (even though pride is one of the deadly sins, something you'd figure William would be attuned to. Hypocrisy among extremists, you say?).

Now take his oldest daughter, Thomasin. She's approaching adulthood and her father is thinking of selling her off to another family, where surely a terrible life awaits. But after her younger twin siblings denounce her as a witch (blaming her for her brother's possession and death), her very life is now in jeopardy. So these are her two life options (both out of her control): either she's sold to someone as a wife/slave, or is murdered by her own family as a witch. There's no way to escape a miserable fate.

Except, that is, to become a witch. Yes, even though her entire family is slain by the end, this movie actually has what can only be seen as a happy ending for her character.

She sees a way out of this miserable life by calling forth Satan himself, in the form of the family's goat, in a desperate bid for survival. Only by joining the coven in the forest (and thus symbolically rejecting her family's rigid religious beliefs) does she escape the terrible paths guaranteed for her life.

A lot of witch mania in centuries past is related to the male fear and discomfort with girls becoming women. The Witch links those fears to the rigidity of thought and mental suppression of religious extremists. I'm by no means a film critic or an expert of women's issues, but I think it's apparent that The Witch is actually a feminist tale about how historically, the religious patriarchy subjugates women, and the only way out is for women to think freely.