By Jason McBride (Seattle, Washington, US)
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The Witch: A New England Folktale, Robert Eggers’ directorial debut, tackles some heavy fare: paranoia, persecution and the cycle of violence. The lean, crisply paced production centers on an outcast colonial family whose bonds are tested by a murderous woodland witch.

Although the subhead, “A New England Folktale,” suggests something whimsical, Eggers, a lifelong student of the period, scoured early American source documents to flesh out character and setting. As a non-student of the period, I don’t know if it’s authentic, but its severity smacks of honesty.

The story takes place in the 1630s, sixty years before the Salem witch trials, and opens with the family’s banishment from a colonial village after the father William (Ralph Ineson) is found guilty of heresy. The exiled family trundles off, finds an isolated spot in the woods and begins a grueling life of subsistence.

Almost immediately, bizarre phenomena plague the family. One afternoon, the infant son Samuel vanishes in the middle of a peekaboo game with his sister, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Eggers cuts to Samuel’s location, and in one of the most relentless sequences ever shot, we watch the process by which an unidentified naked crone grinds the child’s corpse into a ritual salve.

OK. Maybe those batty Puritans were onto something. Paranoia is paranoia, but some threats are real. So the question becomes, how do we face a true enemy without destroying everything we hold dear?

The Witch offers no solutions. But it does show us what NOT to do: succumb to fear, turn on each other and perpetuate the cycle of violence. As the attacks ramp up, the mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) begins to believe Thomasin is the witch. Katherine seems almost too eager to believe her daughter’s culpability, an eagerness aggravated after she dreams of breastfeeding her dead son, who morphs into a bird and tears at her nipple like a vulture picking a corpse. For the viewer, this dream foreshadows Katherine’s demise, and for Katherine, it only adds to her uneasiness about her fading fertility and her adolescent daughter’s ascending womanhood.

[NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD]

Thus spring-loaded, she finally tries to kill Thomasin. Of course, the younger woman prevails, and in the final scene, she strips off her clothes, wanders into the woods, and joins a coven of ecstatic, floating witches.

It’s a cathartic ending. Finally, after 90 minutes of familial strife and lugubrious hardship, someone’s having a good time—too bad their happy train runs on murdered babies. These women have freed themselves from male oppression only to become oppressors themselves; not only do they perpetuate violence, but they’re still in peril. They must murder innocents to maintain their power and beauty. Violence begets violence. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.”

In this age of social media outrage, it’s a timely critique, not of women, but of extremism. Reaction balances the scales, but it doesn’t bring peace.

Again, The Witch offers no solutions, but it shows us what doesn’t work. What does work, however, is Eggers’ story. While the blatant hypocrisy of Puritans—dissidents from England—casting out the family for non-conformity is a bit heavy handed, it sets up Eggers’ basic premise: paranoia leads to more paranoia. Outside persecution brings internal persecution.

In the best horror films, everyday humans are the real monsters. Does Katherine really believe her daughter is the witch, or is the aging matriarch subconsciously making a last stand against youth? Is every evildoer just a victim of some other broken person? And at what point do those victims, driven to the margins of society, become the perpetrators?

Rating: 4/5

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