Puritan patriarchy = more horrifying than an ax-wielding murderer.
We don’t get to see too many female antiheroes in horror films, much less ones speaking in insanely accurate 17th-century prose*. But Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the teenage girl in “The Witch,” is definitely one.
Bound by the strictures of Puritan morality, Thomasin is expected to remain meek and deferential, even when the authority figures around her—notably her father William (Ralph Ineson)—are messing up big time. It’s terrifying but fascinating to watch her slowly lose her patience and her faith over the course of the film. If you’re tired of the usual slasher films in which women do nothing except die and scream, you could do worse than to tune into this slow-burning indie horror gem, which came out in wide release February of this year.
In the opening scene of “The Witch,” a council of Puritan elders kicks William out of the colony for his refusal to compromise on an unnamed religious dispute. Thanks to William’s stubbornness, the whole family must decamp to an isolated farm on the edge of a forbidding wood, which has the lush textures and moody color palette of an Andrew Wyeth painting.
Soon after their arrival, tragedy strikes. A baby brother goes missing under Thomasin’s watch — supposedly snatched by a wolf, but really kidnapped by the aforementioned witch, who pulps his body into a paste to help her fly. Thomasin’s mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) withdraws to her room, weeping; it’s clear she blames her daughter for the loss.
William hastens Thomasin’s alienation, too. When Katherine discovers her family heirloom is missing, William lets her suspect Thomasin — even though he himself sold the heirloom for food. Director Robert Eggers does a great job of evoking the emotional claustrophobia of family dynamics playing out in what is essentially one big room. Thinking the children are asleep in the loft of the farmhouse, Katherine and William discuss hiring out Thomasin as a servant; of course she overhears and is hurt.
As an unmarried but sexually mature woman, Thomasin destabilizes the entire Puritan moral scheme, and her family doesn’t hesitate to punish her for it. Throughout the film, we see Thomasin’s beloved younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) cast furtive glances at her cleavage. Guess who gets blamed for that problem, too?
The “witch of the woods” outburst, aimed at her obnoxious younger sister, Mercy (Ellie Grainger), is the first sign that Thomasin’s patience with all this is starting to wear very thin. At first, she’s only trying to scare the little girl with her talk about boiling and baking — but as the formerly incorrigible Mercy starts to whimper and quake, it also becomes clear Thomasin relishes her newfound power. It’s our first hint that becoming a witch could be about more than signing a deal with the devil; it could be a route to empowerment.
Throughout the film, we catch glimpses of the real witch in many guises—sometimes a beautiful, seductive woman, sometimes a hag who sucks blood from goats. Each time, her lurid, colorful image provides a striking contrast to the dull austerity of the Puritan world. I’m not going to give away the ending of “The Witch,” but let’s just say Thomasin takes the only reasonable—if extreme—option left open to her. And that after watching all she endures in her “normal,” patriarchal society, we audience members are on board with her choice.