Monday 3 July 2017

We Don't Go Back #52: The Witch (2015)

My original essay about (The) Blood on Satan's Claw sorely needed a reappraisal on the grounds that my first crack at it amounted to "ahahahahaha yeah this is rubbish". But my first post about Robert Eggers' essential 2015 folk horror The Witch (styled as The VVitch: a New-England Folk Tale) was just perfunctory, for the simple reason that it was the very first post I did and I was still thinking, "YES it will be fun to write about my Halloween film marathon," and then the film marathon took over pretty much the entire blog because the whole film-writing enterprise turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected. More than that, though, it wasn't a very good analysis. It's got some good lines, but the whole is sorely lacking. But now I'm (probably) (if it funds) going to make this project into a book, so it's time to look at The Witch with some proper depth.

By the way, people are starting to say to me, "But you keep going back," to which the answer is, of course I am, that's been the whole bloody point from the beginning.

As with all the essays on this site, if I have to I'll give away plot developments of the film, and to talk about The Witch? I have to.
The New England Canaan.
It's the late 17th century. A colony banishes William (Ralph Ineson, Finchy from The Office), Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their four children from the community. We get the impression from their strange, archaic dialogue, that William has differed from the leadership of the colony on some point of doctrine; these are Puritans, legit Pilgrim Fathers, so no compromise can be made. So off they go, into the wilderness.

About that strange, archaic dialogue: it's stitched together from witch trials and letters from the period. Most reviews I've read assume that it's supposed to make the film more authentic somehow. It doesn't quite, but I'll get to that later.

The family travel through bleak wilderness, forbidding woodlands. Eventually they find a place where they can make a go of it. They build a farmstead near a forest. It's hopeful, says William. It's happy. It is a new beginning.
The misery of this life.
Eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) has misgivings, present right from the beginning but unspoken. She is in her teens, "showing the sign of womanhood". Her parents charge her with keeping care of her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson, Ellie Grainger) and baby Samuel. She's playing peekaboo with the baby. She peeks, the baby laughs. She peeks, the baby is gone.

The family immediately put it down as the work of a wolf. But Mercy says she saw a witch, and Thomasin didn't see a wolf. Caleb begins to fret about his brother's eternal soul, and William's rigid faith can't give him an answer that's reassuring. No one says it's Thomasin, to begin with, but everyone blames her. The twins seem to be carefree, but there's something slightly off about the way that they sing songs and play games centred around the billy-goat, Black Philip. They say he whispers to them.
Our Father.
William, for all the stress he's under, loves his wife and children, but he's not strong enough, flexible enough, or consistent enough to cope. And he plays favourites: he has praise only for Caleb, confides in him, breaks his own rules in an attempt to bond with his son. Katherine has a silver cup; it's a silly thing perhaps, but when you only have one nice thing, that nice thing becomes especially precious. William swapped it with some Indians for hunting supplies, and he tells Caleb but he doesn't tell her. And then when Katherine explodes at Thomasin for stealing it, William tries to stop his wife, but isn't brave enough to tell her the truth. Mercy and Jonas call Thomasin a witch, and she snaps and says, like a real teenager would, words to the effect of, oh for crying out loud, yes then, you know what, I am a witch and I'm going to do terrible things to you if you don't shut up. Caleb gets lost in the forest, and comes back feverish, dying; Thomasin is blamed.

Thomasin becomes the focus of the family's frustrations. The twins, Katherine and William all accuse Thomasin of witchcraft in turn, although William goes back and forth on it, and it's largely William's fault that Thomasin becomes so isolated from the family, because he's so busy trying not to have Katherine think less of him that he allows her to think less of Thomasin, and the role of witch gets forced upon Thomasin, piece by piece. And the structure of the film does this: the first thing we see after the silent title card is Thomasin's face – we are led to make the connection.
How sadly hath the Lord testified against you.
By the end of the film, when the rest of the family are dead, Thomasin is given no choice but to own it, willing to sign the Devil's Book for the taste of butter and a pretty dress, too exhausted with the hand life has dealt her to pass up the chance to live deliciously when the old black billy goat whispers to her. She's forced into it because nothing about her life is her own. At one point, she overhears her parents wondering whether it wouldn't be better to take her into a village and give her away to a family, to give her a better chance to be married off. They expect her to have no agency. Of course she will take the agency she is given, which is of course isn't real agency at all, but at least she'll have some fun being a slave to darkness.

The (literal) puritanism of the family is approached, but the film isn't about that. Yes, the film critiques it, especially in the way it makes Caleb fret about whether his baby brother is damned, which is later called back when William tries to reassure Katherine that Caleb is "with Jesus", and even has a bit where Katherine confesses that she had wet dreams about Jesus himself.1 But by setting the film in a world where seventeenth century fears of witches are completely, empirically true, it means that they're right. Because you can't have the Devil's Book and animals supping off marks and all that other stuff without actually believing in the force that the Adversary opposes. A Christian Satan depends upon a Christian framework. It's hard to critique puritan Christianity when you've set the story in a world where it has to be objectively right in order for the story to work. Instead the film uses the grim religion of the puritans as a spectacularly bleak backcloth for a tale in which the protagonist's choice is between two sorts of slavery. 
Well remembered.
In fact, the one element of the film that's completely real, completely understandable is how these people act. Every character behaves exactly as an ordinary person would, regardless of being a seventeenth century puritan. A baby went missing and the parents aren't handling it well, and this is having an impact on the kids. And everyone is losing patience with each other, and not really dealing all that well with a family trauma beyond their power, and the adults make honest, understandable mistakes.

And these understandable mistakes are in a context where something is the wilderness trying to kill them. In fact, the collapse of William and Katherine's family is the collapse of any family faced with a succession of tragedies: consider how similarly the collapse of a family in a war zone might play out, a place where children going out to play might fall prey to a drone strike. The powerlessness, the trauma, the distant hostile power that is out of sight, impossible to stop (the family die, one by one, and the daughter falls into the hands of the forces that killed them, becomes herself a radicalised killer).

But in this context, we have witches. We do. The film makes it clear that a witch stole baby Samuel and has murdered him; it's a witch that poisons Caleb, a witch that steals away the twins. The crops fail. Dead children return as ghosts. A raven pecks at an uncovered breast. A scrawny calf, milked, has only blood to give. This isn't in their imagination. This is their truth, the life they are living. I've heard complaints that the ending of The Witch is too declarative, too unambiguous, but the thing is, the supernatural elements of this film are not ambiguous, anywhere. The ending is right for the film. It works.
We sought apples.
But here is where The Witch doesn't quite hold together as securely as it should. The subtitle of the film, A New-England Folk Tale, suggests that it's something from folklore, that it's drawn from a well of legend. And part of this is down to the dialogue, cut out and pasted in from Authentic Period Sources, which problematises the storytelling a little bit. Witch trial transcripts are peculiarly stilted pieces of text, written to an agenda; letters that have survived from that far back are necessarily going to be by a certain sort of person (as in, people of some social classes and backgrounds either didn't write letters, or, more pertinently, didn't write letters that people three hundred years ago thought were worth keeping). And of course, written language is not exactly the same as spoken language. This isn't the language people back then spoke.
I have brought thee a book, Mother.
A film set in history doesn't have to be a hundred per cent accurate, it just has to feel accurate, which is why most films that are set in the seventeenth century that aren't The Witch have only a little bit of archaism (see for instance Blood on Satan's Claw, where people talk in a slightly stilted olde worlde sort of way, but still don't utter a single thou, fain, wouldst, or dost). And The Witch feels super-historical! And that extends to the black magic, which is straight out of the witchfinder's playbook.

The stated intention of the film is to create "A New-England Folk Tale". It is, it's written below the title, literally the first thing you see on the screen. And the idea is that we have a tragedy about a family blighted by witchcraft that is set in a world where everything your seventeenth century witchfinders believed was true, but at the same time that is supposed to be a character study about the disintegration of a naturalistically portrayed family like the ones you find in (the better) films.

Except that the family cannot be portrayed naturalistically because the script gives us this formal, almost theatrical dialogue, which is beautifully delivered by every last one of the tiny main cast, even the children, especially the children, and makes an explicit virtue of the point that it is not set in the real world, but in a world where the witch panics are justified, and the superstitions are correct.

And the visual composition of the film, too, the play of light and shadow, the precise positioning of the people, suggests a Dutch Master, a painterly eye. A formal composition, not a real world. 
I have not raised a witch in this house.
And that brings me back to the ending.

I've heard various objections to the ending of The Witch. One friend was annoyed by it because he said that the witches were all beautiful fashion model types, and clean and everything. So after I rewatched I wound back and played it again (but I didn't do any freeze frames, because that would be weird and icky), and yes, there are naked bodies, but they're just bodies, they're not sexualised, and they're no more nubile than anyone else's bodies, and you hardly see them anyway and it's really hard to tell if they're clean or not. The one naked body you see the most of is of course Anya Taylor-Joy's, covered in blood, and of course Anya Taylor-Joy is an actual fashion model. But this is a film, and it's not that there's anything wrong with Anya Taylor-Joy having the figure of a twenty-first century fashion model (since, as I said, she is one). It just casts a light on the formal artifice of the movie, and if it didn't try quite so hard to be authentic, no one would be bothered by this.

The other big objection to that closing scene is that the whole thing with the floaty laughing just looks daft, and while the obvious response to that is that this is just as much a verbatim steal from the source as anything else, that doesn't wash. I was OK with it, but I'd read about this sort of thing, and I can't help thinking that if you have to have some specialist background knowledge to find the climax of a mainstream genre horror disturbing, you might be doing it wrong.

Having said this, I'm still inclined to give the film a pass on this, because I don't think it is any sillier than what's gone before. The film makes it clear that these are real witches. It shows a witch grinding the baby to ointment and taking to the sky on a broomstick in the the first ten minutes. You see the witch Caleb meets. This is not a remotely ambiguous film. This is not a film about hysteria. This is about a family disintegrating because they're being killed, one by one, by literal witches. The people I've met who despised it wholesale were genre fans who couldn't care less about the family drama who just found it ridiculous from start to finish, and I've actually got more respect for that take, because the Authenticke Periode Detailes of witchcraft are things you buy or you don't.

Seriously: broomstick. Ten minutes in.

Or, to put it more succinctly, it's not that the ending is sillier than the rest of the film, it's that the rest of the film is wholly as silly (or not) as the ending, and whether you buy into it or not depends, I think, on whether or not you care about the actual main attraction, the realistic dissolution of family bonds in the face of unstoppable trauma.

Part of the unrealness of the implied world of the film descends to the indigenous people of New England, who are of course almost entirely absent. We glimpse three Algonquian tribemen inside the plantation fence as the gates close. They are part of the world that William and his family are leaving, part of a real world; William's family, on the other hand, is entering a realm of folklore. The native Americans are not part of this story. This isn't one of their stories. This is a white settler's story, meaning that the native people are excluded from it. Everyone with any role in the film is a white European. It's a fantasy based on stories that don't feature the native people. If there are no "Indians" (William's word) in the witch trial transcripts the story is based on, why should there be in this story?

Well, because it's not a New-England Folk Tale. It's a 21st century movie creating the feel of a New-England Folk Tale, made from a mashup of folk tales and superstitions and letters and witch trials. And the problem with making a film where you're trying to be authentic is that the more authentic you try to be, the harder it is to be authentic.2
I conjure thee to speak to me.
This isn't a problem with the film, really: it's a wider challenge that comes with making films. But The Witch is a film that demands the watcher pay attention to its authenticity as an ersatz New-England Folk Tale, but at the same time you can't judge it on grounds of authenticity, because it's a horror film that feels like a New-England Folk Tale, rather than the actual thing. And the only authenticity that matter in a (genre) film drama is the authenticity of affect.

So I'm going to reject pretty strongly assessments of The Witch that boil down to "It's good because it's all authentic folklore," or "It's bad because it's not authentic enough at the end." I think it's pretty good, but its closeness to the source material isn't the point on which the quality of Robert Eggers' film rests.

It's easy to pick apart The Witch looking for points of folkloric accuracy (and there's a genuine pleasure in finding them if you know where to look), but the most authentic part of the film by far is the arc of its characters, and that's put in a slightly problematic place by the very theatrical, very formal conceit of its script. The genuinely affecting, tragic, heartrending, and horribly disturbing destruction of William's family, and the powerlessness of their faith and familial bond in the face of an unknowable malevolent force, that all nearly gets swamped by that formal conceit. But not quite.

The first time I saw The Witch, I loved it. Having given it a closer watch, I'm not quite so enthralled by it, although I still like it a lot. I think The Witch is a very good, if everso slightly flawed, film, that has a solid arc based upon the entirely understandable disintegration of a family in the face of a trauma that they are powerless to prevent.

And so on balance, while the framing of the film just about works, The Witch doesn't succeed because of the film's aching reach for historical or folkloric authenticity, it succeeds, for me at any rate. because of its emotional authenticity.

Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? Wouldst thou live deliciously?

Support the Kickstarter campaign for We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror and get the essays in this series in one handy volume (or handy digital file). Now on day 5 of 28, the campaign stands at £1046 of its initial £1200.

There is everything to play for.

1If you've ever been in an evangelical worship meeting for students or teenagers, this should make your blood run quite as cold as it did mine. "Jesus is My Boyfriend" is a thing that is often preached against in these circles. It begins with worship songs that could be contemporary MOR love ballads, only with "Jesus" in the place of a lover; but it goes beyond that; Jesus is romanticised by Christian young people, and inserted into romantic relationships, made part of nascent sexualities in ways that it is hard to explain to an outsider. The idea that someone might have "an experience of the Holy Spirit" that equates to a sexual dream about Jesus, as Katherine does in The Witch, was by no means a novel idea for me. (back)

2So for example, my big beef with the 2004 King Arthur film was that it was supposed to be set in the year 453 on a Tuesday or whatever, and if you know me, you'll know that's My Pet Historical Period, and it made a complete dog's breakfast of the historical stuff (like putting Clive Owen in a second-century centurion costume and Saxons with crossbows and mentioning early medieval Catholic heresies and getting them completely wrong). It just fell to pieces because that's all there was, and at the same time I give Excalibur a pass because it's just, you know, sorta pretend medieval and doesn't try to be anything else. (back)