(photo: adapted from stanhua, creative commons license)
In an old-timey flourish, the opening credits for this writer/director Robert Eggers’s unconventional horror film calls it The VVitch (new rerelease trailer), the ancient Latinate “double v.” It’s 1630s New England, and William and his family have been exiled from their Puritan community and must find a new home, alone together in the wilderness. Triggered by some heterodoxy of William’s that he clings to with “prideful conceit,” the expulsion has dangers that are obvious from the strength of the stockade surrounding the sad village buildings, the armed Indians who look on the departing family with curiosity, the gate so firmly barred behind them. From this ominous beginning Eggers builds a horrifying tale.
William (played by Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their pubescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), 12-year-old son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), must create a new farm, and he selects land near a stream and a dense old-growth woods.
Some time passes, and the family has a house and an outbuilding, a chicken house, a stable for the horse, and a small corral for the goats, including a suspect animal named Black Phillip. They also have failing crops and not enough food for the winter. They also have a new baby boy, who disappears while Thomasin is minding him.
All the lengthy prayers and the catechism the family recites (“Canst thou tell me what thy corrupt nature is?” William asks; “My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only until sin, and that continually,” responds Caleb) are powerless in the face of this calamitous loss. Was it a wolf? Or did a witch emerge from the woods and snatch him?
Some scenes suggest the latter and viewers inclined that way are persuaded the witchery is real. My own view is that these scenes were the imaginings of hearts filled with fears, stomachs empty of food, and minds prey to acute spiritual anxieties. After all, such anxieties contributed to the Salem witch trials some 60 years later. In truth, the family members see the things that most trouble them. As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, “The Witch feels at once sticky with tangible detail and numinous with suggestion.” When the closing credits roll, unanswered questions remain.
As for atmospherics, the winter sky is ever thickly clouded. The film’s color palette ranges from gray to dark gray to greige. Brilliant color is saved for the carmine of a cape, and, of course, the blood. The music, by Mark Korven, shrieks in all the right places. These new Americans’ old Yorkshire accents are sometimes hard to understand, but the emotional current is so clear that words are almost unnecessary.
This is not a horror film of the slasher variety or one that lays out clearcut answers. Viewers can come to their own interpretation, and mine does not rely on supernatural forces. Rather than “witches—yes or no?” it is a chilling portrayal of what all can go wrong in a family alone in the wilderness in that very particular culture and era. Though critics like it, audiences expecting a typical horror film apparently are disappointed that it is heavy on thinking and light on exsanguinating—the very things I admired!
I wanted to see this film because recently my genealogical research uncovered that a direct ancestor came from England to Massachusetts—most probably with the same type of religious zeal that took William and his family so far from home—in exactly that time period, 1633. I also learned the dispiriting fact that another ancestor (specifically, Margery Pasque, a first cousin eight times removed) testified in the Salem witch trials against Rebecca Nurse, later executed. I thought The VVitch would give a bit of a sense of what lives were like then, and in that it certainly succeeded.
If YOU see it, I’d be very interested in knowing what you thought of it!
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 90%; audiences: 53%, replaced by a “want to see” percentage of 94%.