Before we begin, I know it’s been a while since I wrote last. The store I’ve been working at since January actually opened the same day I published my post on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Since then, I’ve been working considerably more than I was before. I am also currently caught up in the whirlwind that is trying to figure out which grad school to attend as well as how to pay for a degree . . . Anyway, things are gradually calming down at work now, and I have no choice but to choose a school by mid-April, so I’m optimistic that my posting frequency will pick back up again shortly. I mean, I haven’t been to a movie theater for nearly a month, and lord knows I can’t tolerate such a situation for long.
Now that that’s out of the way . . . it’s been weeks since I saw The Witch. While I have not been able to watch the film again since then, I do have some notes that I chose not to include in my original review, because they contain spoilers. Below, I attempt to turn those notes into a post that will be sensible to others (or at least, to those who have seen the film).
Though much of what I write here will focus on Thomasin and the film’s ending, allow me to start with some broader thoughts about the film and the family it features. First, all that that family goes through after leaving the plantation can be seen as a series of tests. With the possible exception of Thomasin, they all fail these tests, which—among other things—serve to expose the alarming degree of madness and depravity that they are capable of. While Eggers does not definitively declare the source of the tests (or, “tribulations,” “torture,” or whatever other word you prefer) that the family suffers, the most obvious and directly supported explanation is that they are sent by “Satan” in the form a black goat and a number of liberated (and thus, monstrous) women.
The Witch begins with a scene in which William declares his confidence in his faith. He also teaches his children that they are evil and sinful by nature. By the end of the film, viewers may have a hard time claiming that he is wrong. For the family at the center of The Witch, the world is an evil place—a place that is all but void of the God they worship. According to their faith, they can only survive and join their lord in eternity if they can find a way beyond their evil nature while also living pure, holy lives in a place that is anything but. Such a task is impossible for mere mortals, and they suffer the consequences of believing otherwise.
Though Eggers moves the family from the plantation to their hell at the edge of the woods at the very beginning of the film, the reason that they are expelled is still important. William’s entire family is forced to relocate to an unforgiving piece of land (where they must face the evil in the world and in themselves and where they would surely starve to death if given the time) because William himself makes it so. William—the male head of the household who according to his own religion, is the closest thing to a god within his own family—is banished for his beliefs and his religious arrogance, and his wife and children all suffer as a result. William is convinced that he knows best when it comes to matters of faith, and he sees sin and godliness in all-or-nothing terms. And yet, he also dislikes it when his own son asks him questions about God. As the spiritual leader of this family, William is arrogant, unyielding, prideful, and foolish, and he leads them all to a place where they cannot hope to survive (or at least, not while maintaining their puritanical faith).
After William’s faith and pride cause his family to be banished from the plantation, they are then gradually destroyed by the evil forces both within and around them. Such forces (Satan/Black Phillip/the women) may also be attracted by William’s religious arrogance. More importantly, the trials that such forces subject the family to serve remove their holy façade while bringing their darkest depths out into the light; while doing so, they also reveal their terrible sexism.
If there is a hero in The Witch it is certainly Thomasin. As William and Katherine’s oldest daughter (and as their only child who has experienced puberty), she is also likely regarded as both the most feminine and the most sexually dangerous member of her family. Viewers may go into The Witch expecting a tale of family combatting a monster, but Eggers gives them something more complicated instead. Instead of unified family vs. some external beast, The Witch depicts a family tearing itself apart until only one them, Thomasin, remains. Yes, the witches in the forest and Black Phillip’s evil do serve as a sort of catalyst that causes the family to suffer and that moves them to act in ways that they ordinarily would not, but Eggers’s story keeps such shadowy figures on its fringes. He does so, because the true villain in The Witch is not Satan or anyone who serves him—rather, it’s sexism wrapped up in a dark and almost primitive belief system. The evil forces in the wood certainly don’t make life easier for William and his family, but The Witch also leaves viewers with the feeling that things would gone much less terribly for them if they paid nearly as much attention to Thomasin as they did to their religion. William’s spiritual pride may be what causes his family to be exiled, but it is their treatment of Thomasin that truly damns them.
Over the course of The Witch, it becomes increasingly clear that the film is almost hyperaware of Thomasin’s gender and in the ways her status as a young woman effectively isolates her from the rest of her family. The film also makes it clear that Thomasin’s gender is important and that it gives her puritan family reason both to fear and to seek to control her. Thomasin is a girl on the cusp of womanhood and, as such, she is a mystery and a threat. Her family and their patriarchal faith are not capable of accepting her while allowing her to truly explore her femininity or to exist as a sexual being. Instead, they take advantage of her while treating her as an inferior. Before the film is over, Thomasin’s parents conspire to send her away so that they can make money her. Katherine expects Thomasin to take care of the farm and to be like a mother to her younger siblings even though she is still a child herself. Thomasin’s mother also unfairly blames her daughter for a number of things, including the death of her infant son. At the same time, William is more than willing to let her serve as his scapegoat, and her brother Caleb repeatedly objectifies her. As the only young woman in the family, Thomasin is also the one that they accuse of witchcraft—though they do not say so, her gender, age, and sexual status are all the evidence they need. And because Thomasin is a girl, she does not even have the option of properly defending herself from their lies.
If Thomasin’s gender is a vital aspect of how her family (mis)treats her, it’s also critical to understanding why she—and only she—survives the film. Thomasin’s status as a young woman may make her the target of her family’s sexism and paranoia, but it also makes her uniquely qualified to survive the evil that falls on them. Their depravity is not her depravity, and she does not abuse them the way that they abuse her. And so, she outlives them all to take her place among the liberated women in the wood. Throughout the film, Thomasin is repeatedly made to feel evil and flawed by everyone around her, so why on earth wouldn’t she go with Black Phillip when given the chance? And once her father dies, the film shifts, and it soon becomes clear that Black Phillip’s focus was Thomasin all along.
The woman who steals baby Samuel from under Thomasin’s nose sets in motion a chain of events that serve to liberate Thomasin from her family and their beliefs. Viewers are given no reason to think that Thomasin’s family respects her or treats her with much kindness before the incident, but in throwing the family into chaos, Samuel’s death and disappearance also lead them to increase their abuse. As her entire family is consumed with fear and panic, Thomasin is repeatedly attacked by the only people she has. Before the film is over, Thomasin is hit and confined by her father, and after William’s death, Katherine even tries to kill her own daughter—a daughter who is not guilty of any of the crimes she has been accused of. But Thomasin survives. As her family is destroyed around her, she alone remains standing and, without her parents and siblings there to hold her back, she is free to realize her full power. The end of The Witch is a triumph. It’s jubilant more than it is horrifying. In his film’s final scene, Eggers gives viewers an image of a girl who is finally among those who will celebrate her womanhood; yes, she may have had to lose her family in order to join them, but perhaps the loss is worth it. Thomasin’s family, their religion, and their sexism are all prisons that hold her captive, and by shaking her parents’ faith, Black Phillip and the witches give her the chance to escape.
Thomasin may not be a witch when Samuel dies, but she survives her family’s ordeal, because she the only one among them capable of becoming one. Where William—the film’s primary representative of masculinity—is gored by his own goat, Thomasin—Eggers’s most feminine figure—emerges victorious. The Witch may begin as a story of a family sent into exile, but it ends as a fable about a girl who overcomes her strictly religious and traditionally sexist family with the help of Satan and naked women of various ages; and I have no problem with that at all.
Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading (and for putting up with my inconsistent posting schedule)! This post is a little unorganized and feels incomplete, so I may add to it once I have a copy of The Witch that I can rewatch and reference at my leisure. I just wanted to get some of my initial thoughts down now, and I guess I did that. If you’d like to add anything, feel free to comment, but please keep in mind that my current schedule may prevent me from approving and responding to anything you say for up to a day or two.
In addition to following this blog, you can also keep up with me and (my film-viewing activity) by following words on films on twitter.