Warning: spoilers abound ahead.
An interesting trend I’ve noticed about the recently released film, The Witch written and directed by Robert Eggers, is the disparity between critics’ ratings versus the normal movie-going public. On Rotten Tomatoes, with an 88%, it’s nearly universally hailed as a smart, layered period piece, with exquisite attention to detail. Fan reactions have been more mixed, but were hovering in the 50% neighborhood, hardly what you’d expect, given how the critics felt.
I think this actually exposes a deeper story about the film. In some ways they were victims of their own marketing. Everything I read prior to seeing it warned that it was one of the most terrifying films made. The production company, A24, also gave a screener copy to The Satanic Temple, who then garnered their own press by promoting the The Witch as a masterpiece of egalitarian art, and a thumb in the eye of the religious order. Thus, what might have been a middling horror release in February became a minor social media sensation, even on the same weekend that Deadpool was released. No small feat.
The disparity between the critics and the public may expose a bit about how the normal movie-goer isn’t used to seeing mass release think-pieces. It may also show that in the age where the term ‘porn’ is slapped on the end of anything (think food porn, book porn, information porn), subtlety may not be our strong suit anymore. The more likely is that viewers went in expecting one thing and got another, entirely. But who’s right? The critic or the average viewer? This sets up a binary that omits the possibility that there is a third, fourth, or more options, a theme that carries through into the movie itself.
The atmosphere of the film was incomparable. The clothing, set design and soundtrack were expertly researched. Even the language they used felt authentic, beyond the thee’s and thou’s. If a filmmaker can nail the mood it’s already a huge win.
But I’m not reviewing this film on this blog to talk about the normal trappings of a movie and whether or not they were successful. My interest is to help point out a film that I think holds value to the wider pagan community.
The film opens up with the face of Thomasin, a young woman, filling the screen. Her father’s voice booms nearby as he chastises the religious authority of the Plymouth Plantation (or its analog) for their lack of piety. In response, the family is evicted from the protection of the community and heads out into the wilderness to make their own homestead. This is the first among a long series of failings of the father that ultimately leads to the ruin of the family. In fact, as several reviewers have noticed, there’s a strong critique of patriarchy that is the undertone of the movie. Thomasin becomes the feminist critique of the social order within the family, and thus of her culture at large. She repeatedly is the only one who seems to be able to hold it all together while her family falls prey to the reactionary responses they have to their fears, be they real or imagined. She’s also the only one capable of speaking truth to her father. Unfortunately, then as now, women who dare to speak the truth often find themselves cast out, accused of all manner of things, but the net effect is othering. For Thomasin, she found herself actually being accused of witchcraft, something that she was wholly innocent of doing. This is also why, at the end, when she makes the choice to become a witch of her own accord, it is a triumph and a rejection of the repression that she has experienced. She isn’t being redeemed by the patriarchy, she is embracing transformation.
The other startling aspect was the portrayal of nature. Whenever any of the other characters interact with it, they come out worse for the wear. The mother and father are adversarial in their relationship with nature, which sets up the way that the rest of the family then relates to it. All, except for Thomasin, who manages to come out unscathed. When the father and brother venture into the wood to check traps for food, they’re not only empty, but the father’s gun backfires, injuring him. When Thomasin and her brother venture into the forest and become lost, she quickly finds her way out, while her brother has an encounter that eventually leads to his death. The subtext is that the conflict of man vs. nature is a false dichotomy. Nature will always win, or rather, until humanity realizes they are a part of nature, they will continue to fail. By viewing the relationship as a war-like one, humanity is simply at war with itself, incapable of embracing its shadow and working with it.
Something that may prove problematic for some pagans is the Satanic element that is played up. The idea that only through a relationship with the polar opposite of the religious and social structure will our protagonist finally meet her redemption (there’s that tricky redemption again). I think it’s easy to come to this conclusion, however, I’d say again that this is a false dichotomy. Because we are so programmed to see things in a binary, then it’s easy to come to the conclusion that if it’s not this one thing, then it must be the other. The simple story elements of signing the devil’s book or the horrific act of a baby being murdered and used as a salve for youthfulness are more set dressing for a deeper story. These are the elements that we have come to know and expect from a story like this, however it doesn’t detract from the underlying message.
The Witch was more allegory than horror film, something that will surely disappoint some horror fans. But as a pagan and practicing witch, its value far surpasses being a good or bad movie. It’s a missive to the overculture that says we’re here and far from definable, we are a panoply and we’re growing.