In some ways, The Witch suffers from problems similar to those that crippled the box office on Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak last year. Though touted as the scariest thing to come out of Sundance and hyped – steadily – in cinema circles for the better part of a year, Robert Eggers’ debut feature is less horror film than academic exploration of the formal devices surrounding the idea of what horror is. I wrote previously about Crimson Peak as a fever dream for anyone with a cultivated interest in the literary gothic. While not pedantic in its approach, that film buried itself into set of tropes and conceits that ran the risk of boring a contemporary audience. It was almost too specific. Glossy and visually appealing, yes, but in a way that seemed to almost demand its viewer follow-up with some extra credit reading.
The Witch offers a similar kind of specificity, but shirks the Romantic trappings of the Gothic for the plain-clothed Puritans. It has roots both in dark American literary traditions as well as in historical reenactment. It’s telling that some of the buzz around Eggers’ film centers not on the horrors of its story, but on the time and energy spent constructing accurate representations of the time period. Eggers had a real working farm built for his characters to reside on, for example, and part of the budget went to hiring a roof thatcher specializing in a specific New England of tradition. Trivial facts like these point to a commitment to something beyond simple visual storytelling. The Witch is deeper than that, possessed of a real desire to try to make sense of the cultural illogic and fear that gripped the people of that mid-seventeenth century historical moment. Eggers wants to try to understand, to get to the root of how something could seem plausible or scary instead of simply presenting us with the object itself. In telling the story of a family slowly torn apart, The Witch tries to recreate the conditions that would allow for irrational fear to trump all else. In doing so, the film becomes a very smart study of a past moment that allows us to see the way obvious built-in problems, prejudices, and religious restrictions fostered the most hostile of environments.
You feel all of this in The Witch. Eggers has built the tensions of the family masterfully into the visuals of the film in a way that will remind many of works like Antichrist or Don't Look Now. We are -- appropriately -- never quite sure what it is we actually see or are shown in the shadowy moments of The Witch, just as the family can never be sure of what they are experiencing. Is there a literal witch in the wood? Did we watch the infant get spirited away? Are we looking at a sacrifice? At ritual? At what it is we want to see or what it is that is actually there?
Given the film's larger, rather academic concerns: these questions cannot actually be answered. Instead, we are provided with everything we could need to suppose an outcome, but nothing that will allow us to be sure were we to take the case to trial. It's a brilliant move that speaks to the fundamental problems of the witch trials, their latent misogyny, and the dangerous brutality of religion in that time (or in any time). Yet, for all the ways The Witch manages to be intellectually satisfying, for many horror fans it will inevitably feel like a squandered opportunity. The Witch is barely a horror film by current standards. Though it carries a kind of existential dread, it's nothing that could be called scary. And even when the tension builds to what could be a hell of a thrilling final act, Eggers doesn't take that opportunity. He doesn't have any interest in cheapening the work, sharpening it into a product or gunning for a cheap scare. There's something admittedly disappointing about this though the film is obviously richer for it, and perhaps it points to our own hypocrisy as viewers: we want there to be witches. We want to find the villain, prove that the devil is real, that there is something wicked and nasty and evil in the woods. Yet, if that's the case, it undermines and destroys so much of what the story asks us to trust and understand. Ultimately, we can't know, we can only look on as those who claim to know destroy their worlds.