On the twenty-fifth day of Halloween, AP US History’s weird cousin gave to me: The VVitch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
The next entry on the Is This Real or Not? Review mini-series is a colonial witch story that doesn’t have to do with Salem! Don’t get me wrong: I studied history in college, and I truly believe that reality is plentifully horrifying. The story of the Salem witch trials is an incredibly compelling moment of American history that is as fascinating as it is gut-wrenching. Countless portrayals of the trials –The Crucible, Salem– plus the amount of tourism they generates in Salem means that bonnet-wearing witches have long become a part of our world.
To be sure, The VVitch isn’t about Salem, and purports to take place a good half a decade earlier than the famous trials in Massachusetts. But The VVitch captures something for me that no other American witch film has, and is a stark, but enlightening think-piece on puritanical religion, gender, and isolation.
A puritan family is exiled to the woods after expressing religious dissidence, and they must learn to live in isolation. Alone in the woods, the family is shocked when their youngest child, Samuel (Axtun/ Athan Dube), disappears. The eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) comes under her intensely religious parents’ scrutiny, particularly her mother’s (Kate Dickie). As stranger things begin to happen on the farm, the family begins to fall apart.
here we go
The thing about The VVitch that I find particularly compelling is its portrayal of early American Puritan Christianity. It depicts the spiritual landscape of this early Puritan family in an unflinching, yet non-judgmental light . In their world, devils and witches and demons are not metaphors or “ethereal” beings: they are physical actors on the human plane who are a real, tangible threat to their livelihoods. This family is literally perched on the edge of the civilized world, surrounded by what to them are very real spiritual and physical dangers. Their religion is their safety, their weapon against very non-metaphorical evils. That’s the aspect of The VVitch that I think other period witch dramas tend to leave out. In other depictions the witches are either obviously real to everyone in the town, or accusations of witchcraft are seen as a totally cynical method of gaining social power. While both have their place, I think The VVitch captures a wonderful middle ground in this family.
In their minds, the Devil is everywhere. And that why Thomasin comes into suspicion: she’s a young girl. Thomasin is a young woman who’s on the verge of blossoming into her sexuality, who is under constant supervision and dealt the blame for almost everything. She has no friends, so social group. She talks to a goat, because what the hell else is she supposed to do? Every single one of her interactions with her family, who she is supposed to cling to- is under a religious microscope. I mean, good god: there’s a scene where Thomasin and her two very young twin siblings Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) are talking by a river, and the twins threaten to “out” her as a witch. While modern viewers see Thomasin’s interactions with her siblings (she ends up “scaring” them) would read as an older sister just being an older sister and messing with her younger siblings, this conversation is deadly. Any accusation of “witch” would be taken incredibly seriously, particularly because she is a young woman, and thus more susceptible to the workings of the Devil.
Now, while the goat Thomasin talks to ends up being a little more nefarious than just a goat, if we were to remove the supernatural element from this film, then The VVitch would be a story about how religion and gender roles serve to isolate and target a young woman, leading to a violent breakdown of a family.
It’s the family in The VVitch who is playing Is This Real or Not, and with deadly results. Is Thomasin the witch? Is she a pawn? Is she innocent? In this family’s world, legitimately all of the above are possible, real answers that they must consider.
While the witch and the Devil end up being very real, it’s entirely human interaction that leads to Katherine’s fate in the next-to-final scene. This family falls in on itself, unable to separate Thomasin from what is happening to them, and very human emotions (misplaced rage, jealousy, confusion) are what lead to the bloody climax. Eggers strikes a really tense balance between the natural and the supernatural, and shows how potent religious belief and real-life supernatural activity are an explosive combo.
—-Spoilers for the end—-
While the first time I saw this movie the ending caught me off guard, I think it’s fantastic. It caught me off-guard in that holy shit lots of naked flying women. While most of the supernatural happenings in The VVitch are either shown in glimpses or off-screen, this is a full-frontal depiction of a witch rave.
What I love about the ending is that Thomasin joins the witches. The goat, who was apparently Satan himself, offer Thomasin a life of freedom and pleasure: two things she was repeatedly denied in her former life. Her own mother turned against her, scorned her, and tried to kill her. Her family was going to send her away. Her siblings, unaware of the ramifications of her actions, constantly put her under suspicion. The chance to join these women, who are literally free of their earthly tethers, is almost a relief. Fuck them: she’ll become what they said she was. While this is not the place for the discussion about the model of a witch as a “liberated” woman, I have to think the choice to have Thomasin become a witch is laced with a hint of defiance.
Of course, the witches in The VVitch aren’t just some kooky women following their own path, but legit evil, child-killing monsters. So I’m sort of torn on that front.
Jesus this movie is tense
The VVitch thrives on implication, on off-screen or “just-glimpsed” action. While it all goes to hell in a handbasket in the final act, the majority of the movie is a tense interplay between religious suspicion and actual supernatural occurrences.
The VVitch is also stunningly beautiful: it captures a starkly austere vision of early New England, and reminds us that this land was once wilderness. And not the cutesy postcard kind: I mean untamed, untouched forest, filled with the unknown. While it wasn’t filmed in America (yikes) I think it captures the spirit of an early New England, where colonists were literally eking out a living on what felt like the edge of the world. The setting also isolates the characters, who are literally the only people for miles. It’s like a bottle movie, except there are no physical restraints to their locations except their social status. The tiny house becomes claustrophobic as accusations fly, and no one has anywhere to go- except the woods.
The gore is grody, but pretty standard. The only things to watch out for is gore and violence against a child.
This got long, sorry
Just watch The VVitch, okay? It’s tense, beautiful, scary, and captures a historical/religious moment really well, witches aside. But there are also witches. It’s a 2-fer-1 period horror suspense-fest that is as pretty as it is though-provoking.
But again, it also has witches.
Featured image source: http://screenrant.com/witch-trailer-poster-2015-2016/