We’ve all heard about Puritans in 17th and 18th century New England having an unhealthy fear of witches. What if they were right? What if there really were some malevolent, Satan worshipping witches out there? That’s the premise of 2016's The Witch, a mildly entertaining film made with what many would interpret as ambition. Director Robert Eggers’ influences are easy to spot for anyone familiar with horror films of the 70s and I was glad to see so much attention to 17th century historical detail. But the film never escapes the weight of influences and research to breathe for itself.
At the centre of the film is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teenage girl and eldest daughter of William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie). With her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and young twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), Thomasin is part of a Puritan English immigrant family who’ve been exiled by the main colony for unspecified reasons. We see a panel of judges condemn William for some kind of difference in religious belief we never get the details of. The film does, though, give mention to the wonderful, fundamental thorn in the Puritan psyche, the belief that nothing anyone can do in life can affect who God will save and who He won’t, a fairly simple idea that leads to a lot of compulsive second guessing and anxiety in practice, as happens here.
Giving the family a literal, very real witch and Satan to worry about helps the modern, secular audience understand the perspective a little bit. The movie’s best scenes feature the family arguing and accusing each other as that thorn is driven further in by one small transgression by the witch after another. Yet the witch herself is one of the least effective aspects of the film, probably because she removes all the doubt that drives the interesting psychology of the Puritans, leading the film to a rather unsatisfying ending. The director would have done well to have remembered Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal feverishly asking the witch whether or not she had really seen Satan and the witch being unable to answer him.
But Bergman isn’t among the unmistakable influences I mentioned. Eggers has clearly watched a lot of Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento with a touch of The Wicker Man thrown in. The eerie vocals on the soundtrack might have come directly from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Suspiria and some of the editing of POV shots reminded me of The Shining. But the biggest problem with the film is in how it’s shot. Unlike the films from the 70s that Eggers drew from, he uses a very modern, almost colourless, faded palette. Perhaps designed to reflect the narrow worldview of the Puritans, it ends up just being dull, lacking the complexity of true colour and lacking the stark edges of true black and white. Even worse, though, is Eggers’ failure to understand POV shots, often dwelling on Thomasin’s face without any clear character point of view, effectively taking us out of the film. Perhaps he was influenced by Carl Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc or Day of Wrath. But the extended close-ups in Joan of Arc work because practically the whole story takes place in the brilliantly expressive face of the actress—not only can Anya Taylor-Joy not match this but the events of the film are occurring around her while Joan of Arc is almost entirely Joan’s trial, where she is the centre of attention. First because she’s being examined by the other characters, second because she doesn’t seem to see her environment, being in apparent constant contact with invisible forces.
Day of Wrath, also about hardcore Protestants dealing with witches, has the very ambiguity about the virtue of characters’ actions and the reality of Satan that The Witch lacks. So all the lingering shots of Anya Taylor-Joy’s neck, face, and body—except for a few scenes where Caleb is lusting after her—come across more as Eggers’ voyeurism than anything having to do with the story or character motives.
The film’s sense of the real history, the realistic clothing and the terrible suffering the ill-prepared colonies underwent, is nice. Some of the character conflicts are nice. But the film fails to connect with and effectively tap into the fertile psychological ground of its subject.