The thing you have to realize about The Witch is that the threat is real. It’s unclear until the end of the film (at which point it becomes a little too straightforwardly clear) what constitutes the threat, whether the ordeals plaguing a severe—the adjective isn’t redundant here—Puritan family isolated on the edge of a New England forest are actually supernatural attacks at the hands of the haunting menace we meet early in the story or merely manifestations of the family’s own growing dread and dysfunction. In any case, when the protagonists of our story are exiled (excommunicated?) from their larger religious community and forced to make their own life in isolation, the mysterious disappearance of their infant child is only the first of many traumas that suggest they have good reason to fear.
The other thing you have to realize about The Witch is that it’s a profoundly disturbing film. Though it earns all the disquieting buzz you may have heard about its gruesome imagery and content (Thankfully, the camera rarely lingers on the horrors it’s chronicling, though it leaves plenty of room for your imagination to fill in the details.), what left me most unsettled was the emotional havoc the members of the family wreak on each other, their attacks always couched in the language of sin and wrath and judgment. This is a film in which you’ll watch a goat violently gore one character, for example, but it’s also a film in which nearly every character is the victim of, as well as the perpetrator of, vitriolic accusations and (occasionally physical) abuse. Theirs is a world in which mere suspicions of demonic influences have the potential to unravel the bonds of trust and affection, as the stakes of those suspicions couldn’t be higher. (Remember: No one in the family seems to believe the story they tell themselves about a wolf having snatched the baby.)
It’s important to point out that part of the reason the film is so effectively disturbing is that it’s masterfully made. This may be the first feature from Robert Eggers, the film’s writer and director, but he’s created a world with such delicate attention to detail (including handmade clothing and dialogue lifted directly from historical records) and such commanding performances from every actor that we can’t merely laugh off the chills this “New-England Folktale” evokes: It looks and sounds and feels too real, too accurate. Eggers has claimed), “I am positive it is the most accurate portrayal of this period in American history on screen. We went to such lengths to make it so,” and were the film merely a milder, gentler vignette about ordinary frontier life, it would still be wholly immersive and engrossing.
The Witch is neither mild nor gentle. It plays out like a parable, and it’s thankfully ambiguous enough to enable multiple (even conflicting) interpretations: How are we supposed to read, for example, the long, purposeful walk a key character makes in the film’s closing shots? The film is undoubtedly interested in issues of gender and sexuality, or else it wouldn’t give so much attention to pubescent Thomasin’s intense struggle to navigate the pressures of her insecure, exasperated father William, her covetous, grieving mother Katherine, and the gaggle of younger siblings who both admire and suspect her. The film is also undoubtedly interested in the sort of sinister liberation the woods tend to offer in other contemporaneous stories about New England Puritans (think Hester and Dimmesdale’s rendezvous among the trees, or the rumors about what Abigail and the other girls were up to that night in the forest), or else it wouldn’t have nestled the family’s crude cottage and plantation so close to the edge of a wood.
The most compelling reading to me, though, was the way this devoutly religious family’s understanding of God becomes their undoing as they encounter hardship in isolation. That the family’s religious community has cut them off means their humble homestead becomes an echo chamber, one in which the only way to shirk accusations is to level them against someone else. Different individuals raise the suggestion of running errands back to the community (for medicine, etc.), but those plans begin to feel increasingly unlikely and even impossible: This family is unbearably alone, and the only external influences they encounter are unequivocally negative. In addition to more dramatic omens (blood from an udder, a stare from a nearly motionless rabbit), the family also faces more mundane but still serious threats like failing crops and dangerous wildlife and illness, and their pessimistic view of human nature makes it nearly inevitable they’ll direct all their compounding anxieties at one another.
That the family recognizes the insidious threat of evil and sin might not prove so toxic if they also spoke the language of God’s compassion or forgiveness, but theirs is a God who seems to desire sacrifice, not mercy. (Eve Tushnet captures the dynamic well in her review: “This is a movie about what it’s like to do your best to love and serve a God of wrath. It’s about the view from within that faith.”) The film leaves it unclear what sort of theological disagreement causes the community to banish William and his family, though we get the sense his brand of faith may actually be too rigid and uncompromising for them. Nevertheless, it becomes apparent that one quality William and his family share in common with the community that expelled them is the way they handle the reality of sin: Because their God lacks mercy, the answer to the pervasiveness of human sin is not absolution or reconciliation but rather exclusion. Righteousness is maintained and God’s wrath forestalled by purification, and the influence of families or individuals who threaten that purity must be cut off. William’s community exiled him, so we might not be entirely surprised (even as we’re still appalled) when, it a fit of anger and distrust weeks later, he winds up exiling his children in a locked shed overnight. (What happens in the shed that night provides a nice microcosm for what’s been happening to the family over their weeks locked away by the woods.)
In a moment of startling honesty, Katherine (a self-identified “shrew”) confesses how much she misses life in England. She’s lost in despair and doubt, powerless in her belief that her family is falling victim to the enemy they dread more than any other, and she longs for the safety and harmony of their former life. The threat they face—whether from evils lurking deep in the wilderness, or the evil they brought when they settled in their exile—is real.