Puritan Throwback The Witch Gets Under Your Skin

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. Photo: Courtesy of A24

As Thomasin, the teenage heroine of the severely unnerving Puritan horror film The Witch, Anya Taylor-Joy has glowing pink-and-white skin and eyes so far apart they make her seem as if she’s staring into two separate realms — she’s like a 17th-century Björk. Thomasin is too airy and abstracted for rigorous prayer and bears no resemblance to her parents, who have hard, pinched faces. In the first scene, her father, William (Ralph Ineson), denounces the members of his Massachusetts plantation for being insufficiently Gospel-centric and is promptly shown the door — or, rather, the big wooden gates presumably meant to keep out natives and carnivorous beasts. The banished patriarch constructs a farm on the edge of a dark forest, which he forbids his four children (there’s also an infant) to enter. The family works and prays in its shadow, their actions constrained by Scripture, their language stiffened by “thee” and “thy” and “thou.” Entrusted with the baby boy, Thomasin carries it to a nearby field, where she closes her eyes and then snaps them open with a “Boo!” and then does it again. Finally, some fun! But the third time she opens her eyes … Think of the worst thing you can. Then think of something worse.

The writer-director of The Witch, Robert Eggers, began his career as a production designer, and his frames evoke the weight of oppression, both human and demonic. Even when the film is spare, it’s heavy. The palette has been drained of organic life, with low gray skies redolent of suicidally depressed early Ingmar Bergman or else stark chiaroscuro interiors out of Rembrandt. When color comes, it’s with a vengeance, in naked, fleshy female witches who might have leapt from medieval woodcuts (via the delirious Expressionist Scandinavian silent Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages) and demons that evoke Goya’s profanely gruesome “black paintings.” Mark Korven’s score is a wash of dissonant strings mixed with violent atonal chants and unearthly thumps. The music adds malevolence to shots of a rather ordinary-looking goat called Black Phillip. It makes a brown rabbit that sits and stares, motionless but for its nostrils, seem like an agent of Old Scratch himself. 

In some ways, The Witch is a throwback. At least since Marion L. Starkey’s 1949 study The Devil in Massachusetts (an inspiration for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible), pop culture has taken a more Freudian view of Puritan-era witchcraft sagas, putting the blame on patriarchs whose fear of women’s sexuality becomes rage against female self-expression (or, with Miller, McCarthyist hysteria). There’s a tinge of Freudianism — the “return of the repressed” — in The Witch. The patriarch compensates for his loss of power over women and the natural world by frantically chopping wood. And when Thomasin’s bold, freckle-faced younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) attempts an Oedipal assertion of his own manhood, he’s lured from his path by a lush female in a red cloak. But at the end of the day — i.e., the witching hour — The Witch is surprisingly straightforward. In its Puritan framework, a woman expiates her original sin through harsh self-denial or she dances with the devil. It’s either mean deprivation or obscene engorgement.

In a concluding title, Eggers says he based The Witch closely on historical accounts of witchcraft and even used some of the original, antiquated dialogue. He went with the myths, from eras in which most people believed that there was an actual devil with whom to dance. So you’re watching the thing itself, stripped of its postmodern political and cultural accretions. To my taste, the movie finally feels rather one-dimensional, basic. But there’s no disputing its awful power — it gets under your skin — and the insane release you feel when Thomasin’s damnation becomes her liberation, when Anya Taylor-Joy’s ethereally spaced eyes fall on sights that are worthy of them.

*This article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.