Movie Review: The Witch

I usually post only book reviews, but with a newborn at home, I’ve been slipping just a bit in my one-book-per-week goal. While I play catch-up, I thought I’d review a movie I saw yesterday, The Witch. I have never gone to a movie theatre all alone before, but because of the newborn at home and my extreme desire to see this film (based on the trailer), I decided to go for it.

I heard such amazing things about this film, so I had high expectations. Unfortunately, they were not fully met.

The film uses historical records woven into a tale of a family that leaves a Puritan settlement after the father has disagreements with the Puritans over their strict views. The initial scene is short to set up this premise: it assumes a knowledge of the strict and hypocritical nature of the Puritans just enough to show why William would be excommunicated for pride. He takes his pride and his family into the wilderness to start his own farm.

The main character is William’s daughter, Tomasin, who is on the verge of womanhood. She has a younger, responsible brother named Caleb and two demonic younger siblings named Mercy and Jonas—fraternal twins. In the first few moments of the film, the family’s baby, Samuel, disappears under Tomasin’s watch. Though his disappearance is attributed to wolves, some of the family members (as well as the audience, thanks to some scenes we were privy to) believe that a witch is to blame. Katherine, the mother, is understandably devastated by the loss of her baby, but she takes it out on Tomasin. I won’t go into further detail on the plot to avoid spoilers.

I love The Crucible because of its authentic use of court records and historical documents to highlight the paranoia of the time. I was hoping for this same level of detail in The Witch, and in that sense, I was not disappointed. The costumes and the dialogue were authentic, even to the point of having to pay close attention to understand the mix of Puritan and British accents and word choice. Even if you paid no mind to plot, simply watching and listening to the film is an experience itself, transporting you back in time.

It’s the plot I have a gripe with—and mostly, its execution. It was implied throughout the film that each family member was perhaps carrying his or her own sin. There was certainly enough talk about religion and forgiveness—which is understandable, given that the family came over from England as Puritans. The problem for me was the film’s point of view. The film shifted point of view at times to let us see what was happening to different characters; however, the perspective was never deep enough to allow me to truly understand the psychological and moral battle that was going on in each character. Rather, I had to bring my own imagination into the film.

For instance, Caleb at least twice in the movie sneaks a glimpse at his sister’s budding chest (through her shirt, of course). This, it is implied, is his sin. When he later encounters what appears to be a witch, she is young and big-bosomed, implying that Caleb’s sin is lust. But I never felt fully engaged with his point of view—or any other family member, for that matter. For me, the characterization seemed superficial.

The only time I felt truly engaged was during the last five minutes of the film, when we are deep, deep in Tomasin’s point of view. For me, those last five minutes were frightening. But that’s how I expected the entire film to be. Part of it is managing expectations. In the beginning, we as the audience are shown a witch doing horrible witch things (I won’t spoil the plot any more than that). To me as a viewer, this tells me I can expect the supernatural in this film. But much of the film seemed more like The Crucible—where most of the “supernatural” was happening inside character’s minds as a result of stress or paranoia. I felt the film never achieved the right balance there. I wonder if the filmmaker intentionally wanted to be ambiguous. I prefer when a filmmaker takes a stronger stance in shaping the narrative.

It was really the lack of depth in characterization that made the film fall short for me. Better characterization could have added depth to the psychological ambiguity, which is an important element in all horror stories.

In short, the film was interesting from a historical perspective, and there were moments that were a little bit scary. It was certainly rated “R” for a reason, and many of the scenes to me were more sad than scary (perhaps because I have a young baby at home…). I don’t regret seeing the film; I only wish it lived up to the expectations I had built for it in my head.