Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The VVitch (2015)

 William: We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.~from The Witch (2015)
 [Spoilers Alert] I am not a big fan of horror movies, not by a long shot, although I have seen a few. Historically authentic films are a weakness of mine, especially films which pull the viewer into the past like a time machine. In The Witch (2015), written and directed by Robert Eggers, the clothes are handmade; the wood is hewed by hand; the speech is circa 1630; the only light is from sun or candles. Probably one of the most historically accurate films ever made, as well as one of the most haunting, it is almost, but not quite, a combination of The Exorcist (1973) and The Village (2004). The Witch surpasses both films in stark simplicity but it is the realism which renders it unsettling. Truthfully, I would not recommend watching it with anyone under eighteen within hearing since even the background music is unnerving. The film is disturbing on many levels and not for young people.

According to Viddy Well:
Robert Eggers floored audiences with his chilling tale of 17th century folklore, The Witch. However, it wasn't solely the Puritan nightmare that wowed the crowds, but Eggers' painstaking attention to detail and the film's historic authenticity. Being a production and costume designer before turning writer/director, research is no new concept to Eggers. He researched the film over the course of four years while simultaneously juggling costume design and other projects, going so far as to work directly with museums and historians, who helped compile an expansive collection of primary sources, which comprised of volumes of period fashion, animal husbandry, agricultural techniques, firsthand accounts and journals, religious texts, and folklore.

This research permeated the screen in various shapes and forms, be it the dialogue, the dress, or the very farm the family resides on, all of it necessary for the final product. It helps to suspend any disbelief, helping the audience to lose themselves and become transported to 17th century New England.

As Eggers mentions in the Salem Panel Q&A, which appears on the film's digital release, “I was trying to understand how the Salem witch trials happened, how the witch holocaust in Europe happened, and, I think, because today, when we think of evil witches — and I’m not talking about white witches and Wiccans and contemporary witches — but when we think of evil witches, it’s as if it never existed… But to actually understand that in the early modern period for everyone, except for a few people in the extreme intelligentsia, the real world and the fairytale world were the same thing, and if someone called you a witch, they really thought that you were a supernatural being capable of doing the things that the witch does in this film. So, if I’m gonna get audiences to actually go along and accept that, we have to be transported to the 17th century, we have to be in the mindset of the English Calvinists, or it’s never going to work.” (Read more.)
The film begins with a Puritan family being banished for heresy from what one assumes is the Plymouth Plantation in New England. Now the "Pilgrims" of Plymouth fame were a splinter group of the Puritan movement called "Separatists." Separatists were to the Calvinists what the Sedevacantists are to Catholicism. So Separatists kicking out a family for heresy would be like a Sedevacantist group expelling a St. Pius X family for being too liberal. In The Witch, we do not know what William, the father of the Puritan family, said that was considered "heretical" but he refuses to budge. William, his dour, devout wife Katherine and their four young children leave the safety of the settlement. They  build a farm in a clearing surrounded by forests, which pretty much describes all of Massachusetts at the time. The story is seen mostly through the eyes of the oldest daughter Thomasin, a remarkably lovely teenage girl, prayerful and obedient. She encapsulates the only bit of beauty in the bleak surroundings

The film flashes forward several months or a year. It is late autumn. A new baby, Sam, has been born; a thatched cabin has been built and a barn is partially constructed. The corn is afflicted with a black rot and the family face possible starvation in the winter, especially since William's skills as a hunter leave much to be desired. Thomasin is caring for Baby Sam when he vanishes, never to be found. William blames the tragedy on a wolf, while the rest of the family are convinced that a witch from the forest stole the baby for her own gruesome purposes. Thomasin's mother thinks that Thomasin herself is to blame and wants to send her back to Plymouth.

One can tell from the family's conversations that the Calvinist obsessions with sin, damnation and the devil are utmost in their thoughts. There seems to be no grey area in their thinking but all is black and white; everything that happens is either from God or the devil. No allowances are made for the fact that the members of the family are being victimized not by the devil but by poor diet, back-breaking work, social ostracism  and loneliness. They are without diversion, recreation, holidays, or even other Puritans for company. But grief, hardship and fear of starvation are soon the least of their problems.

The family is shown breaking bread at supper; one assumes it is rye bread since William later mentions how in the future he would like to plant wheat. If the corn is afflicted then is the rye as well? While the family of William and Katherine blame everything that goes wrong on the devil and witchcraft, perhaps the source of their troubles is ergot on the rye, a substance which can cause convulsions, hallucinations, delusions, mania, gangrene and death in both humans and animals. After the baby is taken, then reality becomes blurred. There is a horrific scene, shrouded in darkness so a bit unclear, of a nude crone disposing of the baby in an evil rite. Is that scene Thomasin's hallucination, since she is tormented by guilt at the loss of the baby, a guilt which is reinforced by her mother's blame? From that point on, the family slowly but surely unravels, and the farm animals, too.

Then the oldest son Caleb has an encounter with a witch in the woods, leading to his death. Was he hallucinating? Were his convulsions and death a result of ergotism? The distraught family see themselves as being taken over by the devil; they all blame Thomasin, accusing her of having sold herself to Satan. Thomasin, on the other hand, blames her younger twin siblings, whom she claims have been conversing the the billy goat, Black Philip. By the end of the film, everyone has died or vanished except Thomasin and Black Philip. The former follows the latter into the woods where a  coven of witches are dancing around a cauldron. Naked and in ecstasy, Thomasin joins them and floats into the air. A feminist reading of the finale is that by throwing off the yoke of patriarchy and family obligations, Thomasin has achieved liberation. If such is the case, then "liberation" has been achieved only through the blood of infants and the destruction of the family. The new found "freedom" is actually a form of slavery, in which her body and soul are the price paid for fleeting pleasures.

My guess is that Thomasin has totally lost her wits and, consumed by ergotism, is about to die alone in the forest. What is most scary is not the alleged witchcraft but the fragility of human life in the wilderness, where one disaster such as a crop failure can make a difficult existence almost impossible, whereas several disasters can mean annihilation. Although some may be called to the hermit existence, Christian life, especially family life, is best lived in community. We are meant to help each other and receive help. It can require a large dose of humility, but without humility pride conquers, and we die alone in the wilderness. Share

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