Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Feminists Go to the Movies, part 3: "The Witch" is The Feel-Good Movie of the Year. . . If You Are a Satanist

Puritan Hubris Punished Tarantino-Style

 
Spoilers!!!
 
The Witch is a bit of nastiness that, despite spooky posters and a spooky trailer, could hardly be called a horror film.  Tim Dirks of AMC's Filmsite defined a horror film as follows: "Horror Films are unsettling films designed to frighten and panic, cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worst fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience."

I never felt fright or panic as I watched the film, I was never captivated or entertained, I did not at any point find my worst hidden fears being invoked, and I had no cathartic experience as the film plodded to its conclusion.  The best horror films feature characters that you understand and care about.  This film does not.  The best horror films have a good story that the audience can follow through various twists and turns.  This film has no real story. 

The film is focused on a Puritan family living in New England during the 1630s.  The family members include father William (Ralph Ineson), mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pre-teen son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), two young twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger), and baby Samuel (unbilled).  The family looks strangely fearful and unhappy even before the real trouble starts.


The film begins with the family being excommunicated from a Puritan plantation due, according to the community's leaders, the father's "prideful conceit."  William accuses the settlement leaders of being "false Christians" for failing to adhere to the "pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels and the Kingdom of God."  The judges tell him that, for his dissident behavior, he must be "banished from [the] plantation's liberties."  This excommunication is a key part of the story that sets into motion everything that goes wrong for the family.  Shouldn't we know specifically how the father came into his intractable conflict with the community's leaders?  The father's character arc doesn't work without this information.  We can only assume that this is an issue of the father's pride, which will prove to be a detriment to his family throughout the story. 

The scene, as it stands, makes me question William's reasonableness.  He could be a fool or he could be a mad man for leaving the security of the settlement.  But, just as any new community, the Puritan settlements inevitably experienced a rise in dissidents.  In time, the dissents formed their own groups, including the Quakers and the Baptists.  It remains difficult to judge William without knowing the exact laws that he has broken.  Andrew Delbanco, editor of The Puritans in America, explained the design of Puritan society as envisioned by John Winthrop, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  He wrote, "[Winthrop] turned. . . to communal values, to loving one another, to rejoicing and suffering together, to living as members of one body.  But this beauty of community — that we could live and rejoice and suffer together as one body — also has its dark side: the requirement to conform, the surveillance, the excision of all that does not quite fit."

So, this family that does not quite fit accepts their banishment with hardened faith.  Eve Tushnet of The American Conservative wrote, "The family sings hymns as their small cart rattles out into the unknown."  The father's insistence to live in purity has now alienated the family from their fellow man and settled them into a remote cabin beside a dark and menacing forest.  We know that trouble is bound to come as soon as the family plops down in the middle of nowhere.  This is "cabin in the woods" stuff.

The director, Robert Eggers, has made it clear in interviews that he is not fond of the Puritans.  The Puritans believed that we are sinners who must humble ourselves before a wrathful God.  Caleb at one point repeats a tenet that his father taught him: "My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually."  The film purports that this dark form of religion can draw darker forces into a man's life. 


Without question, the Puritans were not a feel-good bunch.  They believed in denying themselves pleasure because pleasure could easily distract a man from vital commitments.  Puritan authorities once issued a ban against church members eating cake on Christmas.  "[T]his day. . .," read the ban, "is to be kept with the more solemne humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sinnes, and the sinnes of our forefathers. . ." They were concerned that Christians could forgot about Christ while "giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights."  This, they said, was "contrary to the life which Christ himselfe led here upon earth. . ."  But I look at today's pleasure-obsessed society and I cannot say that the Puritans were entirely wrong.

The ethics of the Puritans emphasized the importance of hard work and self-discipline because this allowed them to achieve worldly prosperity, which was regarded as the best sign of divine favor.  We have, in fact, inherited many of our best qualities as Americans from the Puritans.  Delbanco wrote, "Puritanism as a basic attitude was remarkably durable and can hardly be overestimated as a formative element of early American life."   



A high literacy rate existed in the Puritan community.  Abram Van Engen, author of Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England, wrote, "The Puritans were deeply committed to learning — a commitment so obvious and so interwoven into all they said and did that it is sometimes brutally shocking. . . to discover popular views that depict the Puritans as anti-intellectual fanatics."

The Puritan community's devotion to learning was shared equally by both sexes.  Debra Kelly of Listverse wrote, "In a time when women were still largely uneducated, most Puritan women were not only literate but entrusted to run the majority of household, financial, and legal affairs. . . A literate, well-read mother was more likely to raise godly children, it was thought.  It was necessary for her to be able to read to her children, to teach them scripture and give them the foundation that they would need to become good citizens." 

Many books have been written about the Puritans' great contributions to this country.  Just know that there was a lot more to these people than the film lets on.

The film's spare plot was described perfectly by Plugged In's Adam R. Holz.  He wrote:
Thomasin's tending to [baby Samuel] one day on the edge of the forest, playing a friendly game of peekaboo.  But the fourth or fifth time she uncovers her eyes, Samuel is … gone.

Thomasin insists that she knows nothing of how the boy disappeared.  But as the family grieves the infant's absence, it's hard for them to not entertain the possibility that perhaps Thomasin herself is … a witch.  Those suspicions only increase when Caleb soon vanishes, too, while he's with Thomasin in the woods they've been forbidden to set foot in.

The more Thomasin pleads her innocence, the more her increasingly unhinged parents doubt her earnestness.  And then Caleb finally returns from the woods … and he's not quite the same.
We have seen the real witch, so we know Thomasin is innocent.  We only wish that her parents would believe her.  But that's it, that's the story.  The babysitter loses the baby and the baby's parents accuse her of foul play.  Then, a second child comes to harm, which makes everyone even crazier.

The film is torture porn, which never needs a story.  Hapless characters encounter a serial killer, who proceeds to torture and slaughter them one by one.  But the film is particularly distasteful because most of the victims are small children.  A version of Hostel with children is not a film that I care to see.  Five minutes into the film, the film's baddie steals a smiling baby, eviscerates and crushes the baby, and smears her craggy body with the baby's fat and blood.  Matt Patches of Grantland described the scene best: "[A] wrinkled hag pestle-and-mortars a baby into body lotion."  Really, is this the height of art?  Is this entertainment?  What is this? 

It has become the duty of the filmmaker to punish the foul Puritans.  Eggers said that he found the "hubris that English settlers had" was "really disgusting and horrible and embarrassing."  But William shows love for his family and he shows a deep spiritual conviction.  He is hardly disgusting and horrible compared to his adversary, the witch.  But Eggers prefers the witch, who as I understand it represents female empowerment.

Evil reigns supreme from nearly the opening tableau to the closing credits of the film.  Josh Larsen of Think Christian described The Witch as "a low-budget horror picture in which Jesus is mentioned a lot, but Satan gets all the screen time."  It is no wonder that the film has been enthusiastically endorsed by the Satanic Temple.

The family makes themselves vulnerable by forfeiting Christian virtues like grace and mercy.  Larsen wrote, "The father. . . lets his obsession with sin, punishment and the influence of the devil define the family’s dynamics, so that when human frailty does crop up (when the mother grows jealous of the daughter’s youthfulness or when the father is too prideful to admit that their crop has failed), guilt, doubt and fear become a toxic brew." 

The crop failure is an important part of the story.  William has evidently overestimated his ability to grow food for the family (assuming the crop failure isn't also the witch's doing).  But the real problem is that, while his family is starving, the man refuses to humble himself before the Puritan leaders and convince them to take back his family.

Even fans of The Witch do not agree it is a horror film.  It has been said by fans that the film is more a psychological drama or a family drama.  It makes perfect sense that Eggers says that a major influence of the film was Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972).  Cries and Whispers was a family drama that addressed repressed feelings, family discord, a distant mother, religious faith, a haunting spirit, and ultimately death.  Bergman even threw in the mutilation of sex organs, which Eggers must not have been able to fit into his script. 

A family should be unified by love, trust and intimacy.  The bonds between the four women in Cries and Whispers are, according to Jacob Hall of Slash Film, "tested and broken."  Hall wrote, "The characters at the heart of The Witch desperately reach into their faith and pray to God to guide them, to heal them.  The characters of Cries and Whispers don’t even have that much – if there is a higher power, he abandoned them long ago."


Detractors of The Witch generally found this non-horror horror film to be boring.  Patches found that the film "deflate[s] a little bit in the middle section" and "becomes somewhat monotonous."  Mallory Ortberg of The Toast questioned the entertainment value of "a really period-accurate movie about people saying 'thee' to each other and shucking rotted corn for like seven hours?"  Ortberg did not believe that the film offered anything exciting except for the final scene's "blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bloodbath."  The Village Voice's Alan Scherstuhl complained that, at times, the film becomes a "study [of] white pines."

 

The most scathing review of the film that I could find was written by Scherstuhl, who stated:
We've admired the effort put into the realization of a 1630 New England, the thatched-roof production design and the scratchy woolen shifts, and the way most shots' stark boldness suggests seventeenth-century woodcuts.  We've invested, perhaps, in the suffering of young Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), unjustly accused — as all bonnet-wearing teens in movies must be — of witchcraft.  We've maybe relished the occasional vision of mythic, pre-industrial terror: the hag fondling a baby, the goat whose teat spurts blood, the apple whose red has been made even more lurid with a coating of gore.  And we've seen wholly unambiguous evidence that, in the reality of the film, there are witches in the woods, and that Satan doesn't have anything better to do than to dick around with settlers' livestock.
The message of the film is not entirely clear.  Ethan Sacks of the New York Daily News wrote, "Early on, it seems that The Witch is tapping a higher metaphor for coming of age. . . or religious intolerance. . . or man's uneasy balance with nature. . . or something."

The witch exploits the family's repressed emotions, their lack of grace and mercy, and the grief they feel over the loss of the baby.  We humans can be exploited in so many ways.  The grief is terrible.  Grieving the loss of the baby makes it hard for the family to hold onto their faith.  But their lack of grace is, as the film shows, even worse.  Larsen wrote, "[I]n refusing to allow for grace, they become easy pickings for the witch."   

The film has received the deepest analysis from Christian film critics.  Let's start with Eve Tushnet of The American Conservative.  Tusnet wrote:
The Witch is pervaded by the fear of God.  There are occasional references to His mercy but only as something to beg for, not something to trust in. . . 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 mother’s speech about the way her baby’s disappearance has brought her from blissful faith and "ravished" union with God to torturing doubt is one of the best, most nuanced expressions of religious anguish I’ve seen in cinema.  And the scene in which a possibly-possessed child begins to pray and quote the Bible is flat-out shocking, totally unexpected and yet drawn from the wellsprings of Christian faith.
I now return to Holz, who provided a comprehensive Christian perspective.  Holz wrote:
William is absolutely devoted to leading his family in holiness and the ways of the Lord, which should be a good thing.  But the fruit of William's rigorous focus on dogmatic piety isn't a lifting of burdens, which we're told should happen in Matthew 11:30, or a joyful celebration of living life to the fullest, as is referenced in John 10:10; rather it is deep fear and morbid meditations on hell, damnation and the forces of spiritual darkness.  Katherine, especially, seems to fear the prospect of hell.  And when Samuel disappears, we learn that he was never baptized—something that leads his mother to believe he's been utterly damned.  Eventually, such worry forces her to slip perilously close to insanity.  She tells her husband that she's lost the ability to sense God's presence and that she believes the whole family is cursed.
The suffering that Eggers imposes on the family is grief.  I share in the family's grief and I pity them.  I am disgusted by the witch butchering the infant.  But grief, pity and disgust are not the predominant reactions that I expect to get from a horror film.

Tension and doubt cause family members to turn on one another.  Adam Chitwood of Collider wrote, "Someone must be to blame for their poor fortune, and if not God, it’s surely one of them."  Holz stated, "While this devout family imagines evil in their midst that doesn't exist, real evil stalks and eventually claims them."

Unlike Katherine, William does not believe for a long time that it was a witch that took Samuel.  He insists that it was a wolf that got the baby.  Eggers clarified the reason that William refuses to believe that he has a witch problem until it's too late.  It's not that he doesn't believe that witches exist.  It is, again, his pride that gets in the way.  He doesn't want to believe that his family is being bedeviled by a witch because only a man who lacks purity would be susceptible to the torments of a witch.  Ineson said in an interview that William could not possibly imagine that a witch could have power over "the Greatest Puritan in the World."

In William's defense, the wiliness of Satan and his minions has to be taken into consideration.  Delbanco wrote, "[W]hen [Satan] attacked, he gave the 'fatal stab unseen,' and his slyness -- his very essence -- was confirmed by the difficulty of recognizing him."

The mother already mistrusted her daughter because of her developing sexuality, but now she has suspicions that the young woman has stolen a silver cup that was passed down to her from her dear father.  Holz wrote, "William doesn't tell his wife the truth for some time about trading [the] beloved heirloom for animal traps.  His reticence furthers his wife's wrongheaded beliefs about Thomasin."  It is difficult for him when he must finally confess the truth.  Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote, "William, his authority flaking and peeling away with every scene, admits out loud to being a thief."  

Caleb is beginning to have sexual feelings.  We know this because we have seen him glimpsing lustfully his sister's cleavage.  So, the witch uses the boy's lust against him as he wanders through the woods.  Holz wrote, "[The witch] is buxom and cleavage-baring, and she seduces and kisses him.  Eventually, he returns home without his clothes. . . In a feverish haze, he exclaims, 'My balls, my stomach, sin, sin, sin'."

 
 
 
 

So, yes, this witch is a true feminist.  She feels free to kill babies and she likes to have slutty sex.  It fits into this anti-maternal, baby-killing scenario that, at a recent pro-abortion rally, feminists happily bit off the heads of baby cookies.  It's real grim Hansel and Gretel stuff.


KC Ifeanyi of Fast Company wrote, "Caleb’s condition eerily plummets from a chaotic seizure to what one can assume to be a either a fit of delirium or a moment of religious ecstasy.  Arms outstretched, eyes cast upwards, Caleb slowly sits up, reciting snippets of a prayer from John Winthrop, one of the Puritan founders of New England."

Here is what boy says in the film (assuming that I transcribed it correctly):
Cast the light of your countenance upon me, spread over me the lap of thy love, wash me in the ever flowing fountains of thy blood.  Holy thing I am, my sweet Lord Jesus, my Lord, my love.  Kiss me with the kisses of thy mouth.  How lovely are thou!  Thy embrace, my Lord, my love, my sole salvation.  Take me to thy lap.
This is actual prayer from Winthrop's diary:
O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable thou art!  Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is sweeter than wine: How lovely is thy countenance!  How pleasant are thy embraces!  My heart leaps for joy when I hear the voice of thee my Lord, my love, when thou sayest to my soul, thou art her salvation.  O my God, my king, what am I but dust!  A worm, a rebel, and thine enemy was I, wallowing in the blood and filth of my sins, when thou didst cast the light of Countenance upon me, when thou spread over me the lap of thy love, and saidest that I should live.
Eggers said, "That 'kiss me with the kisses with his mouth' was very striking to me.  With some more research, I realized it's from the Song of Solomon that Winthrop is appropriating.  It's very common all through the Middle Ages and the early modern period for people to appropriate biblical language in their own way.  But this kind of mystical, erotic relationship with God is something that was very interesting, to say the least.  And I think that especially from a modern perspective, we really wonder is he saved or is he not saved?  And that’s a question that the parents are asking themselves."


The Song of Solomon is an Old Testament passage about a bride and groom rejoicing in their newfound sexual intimacy.  Could Caleb be referring to the newfound sexual intimacy that he experienced with the witchy child molester?  He sounds sexually titillated as he speaks these words.  At the height of his excitement, Caleb limply falls back onto his bed.  He is no longer breathing.

Ifeanyi wrote, "Caleb’s death at the hands of witchcraft signals a dynamic shift in the film.  At this point, some family members have consoled themselves into thinking the baby’s disappearance earlier on was caused by a wolf or some other animal snatching him up—but facing witchcraft dead-on is the final rift that sets in motion the last, and certainly bloodiest, scenes in the film."

William finally acknowledges his blame in this matter.  He says, "It is my fault.  And I confess it.  Oh my God, I am foul.  I am infected with the filth of pride.  I am, I know it.  Dispose of me how Thy wilt, yet redeem my children. . . I beg Thee, save my children.  I beg Thee, my Christ, why hast Thou damned my family?"  Is this a character arc?  No, because he no sooner says this then he is gored to death by a possessed goat.


In the final minutes of the film, Katherine and Thomasin are the only members of the film that we know are still alive.  The twins are missing, but they are likely dead.  Katherine furiously attacks her daughter, who seems more than ever to be a witch.  Her daughter grabs a knife and, with rage, stabs her mother to death.

Goya's "Witches' Sabbath" (1789)

Holz wrote, "Thomasin, the lone survivor, begins talking to Black Philip, the goat, asking if he is in fact the devil.  And. . . it turns out that he is.  The beast morphs into a man and coaches Thomasin through the process of surrendering her soul to him in a blood pact.  She then wanders naked into the forest to find a coven of other (similarly unclothed) witches who are performing an ecstatic rite around a fire before they begin to levitate."


Thomasin has turned from love and kindness to unrepressed evil in less than a minute.  It is with great joy that she now joins the witches' coven that tortured and murdered her family.  If her father was depraved due to his pride, it hardly seems that she will find a better father in Satan, whose own fall came about due to his epic pride.  Satan would have been pleased if the tormented William cursed God before he perished, but the man only asked God to take him and save his family.  But what sympathy can we expect from Eggers?  Thomasin's betrayal of her family and her religious faith is again presented by the filmmaker as an act of female empowerment. 

It is astonishing that a film as dour and meticulous as this one could end in such a silly and hasty way.  Ortberg wrote, "I know we are solidly against Puritans in These Modern Times, but they did not establish that her life before was so shitty [or] that her cool new witch life is going to be fun."  Like it or not, this is how it ends.  We go from Ingmar Bergman gloom to Steven Spielberg cheer.

Goya’s "Witches in Flight" (1798)

The message of the film is presumably to be found in this abrupt tonal shift.  After she slaughters her mother, the young woman can finally shed her ponderous religious shackles and summon the power of her newfound demonic freedom to float in mid-air.  The light from the fire casts a radiant glow on her.  It is the same glow that we saw as Caleb lie possessed in bed.  The fact that she moves so sharply from darkness to light can only suggest one thing - God is the darkness and Satan is the true light.  Thomasin replaces the tight frown that we have seen for the entire film with a great open smile.  This is, without question, a fun experience for her.  The one other person that I saw happily soar into the air bathed in golden light was Peter Pan.  The last that we see of Thomasin she is laughing delightedly.


Tasha Robinson of The Verge suggested that the fantastic ending could be taken as a metaphor.  Other critics have assumed that none of the film's supernatural horror is to be taken literally.  The truth, according to this theory, is that the entire overwrought bunch had only imagined the witch.  Lane wrote, "Could we be observing not facts but the fanciful terrors of the devout?"  My first reaction to the theory was, simply, "No way!"  This interpretation of the film made no sense to me whatsoever.  But, then, I thought more about this and I figured that Robinson and the others might have a point.  There have been Biblical scholars that have suggested that Satan is not necessarily real.  He could be the abstract quality of evil that exists inside each person.  According to Delbanco, the Bible has at times presented Satan as a symbol of "our own deficient love." 

What does Eggers say about this?  Eggers said, "I know that's kind of a weird thing to say, but of course, in the period [of The Witch], the witches were real.  Religious hysteria was also real.  And in Salem, they realized they had made a grave mistake, but it wasn't because witches didn't exist.  It was just that those particular women, and a few men, were not witches."  But Eggers has been inconsistent when asked about this.  He has offered encouragement to the "smarty-pants" who wants to go deeper intellectually in interpreting the film.  He said, "If someone wants to go in and watch this and think it's about a real witch, that's the surface read.  But if you want to go in for more, there's a lot more ways to look at it."  We will delve deeper into this subject in my next article.

Eggers dressed up his cast in waistcoats, aprons, shifts, square-toed shoes, petticoats and lace bonnets.  The director boasted that the clothing was "hand-stitched based on extant clothing."  He had them speak in old English (often unintelligible).  But, without the distractions of the historical motif, you would see that the film didn't have much of a story to hold your attention.  Imagine the film in a modern setting without the chilly 17th Century atmosphere.  All you would have is a family that moves next door to a homicidal neighbor.  Mayhem ensues.

Tragedy can tear apart the best of families.  The family has lost a child.  They are starving due to the difficulty of farming uncultivated land.  The fact that their farm has failed to produce food is a serious enough problem for the family.  So, the family members turn on one another while struggling with fear and grief.  Do they deserve to be horribly murdered for this?  Eggers could do with a little of Christian mercy himself.

Scherstuhl believed that, whether he intended to or not, Eggers joined forces with the Puritans.  He wrote, "The Witch purports, at times, to confront ignorance and hysteria, but in the end, for horror thrills, Eggers's film sides with the preachers and executioners.  It literalizes the fevered terrors of our God-mad ancestors — and then brags that it's all steeped in research.  It's like if, a couple of centuries from now, the latest holodeck true-crime horror flick is a West Memphis Three story that wraps with the boys high-fiving Lucifer."

Eggers spent four years working meticulously to bring this story to the screen.  It was a passion project.  He wouldn't have been so dedicated if he didn't believe he was delivering an important message.  He was disturbed by the cruelty of the Salem Witch Trial, which were perpetuated by the Puritans, and, like Quentin Tarantino, he sought to rewrite history for a bit of righteous score-settling.  The witches got to win this time.  Lane said that, as William splits wood with his axe, he looks like he would make "a good executioner."  Maybe, William would be willing to behead a few bad witches if the burning pyre got rained out.  The goat's goring of William is equivalent to the assassination of Hilter in Inglourious Basterds (Eggers referred to the Salem Witches Trial as "the witch holocaust") and the ex-slave gunning down the plantation owner in Django Unchained.

But the Puritans were, according to Eggers, guilty of even more.  Eggers has said in interviews that the Puritans had "a really weird relationship with nature."  He spoke of the Puritans coming to America at a time when "there was a real problem in England. . . with deforestation."  It troubled him that the Puritans planned to selfishly and greedily cultivate their new homeland, which included chopping down those white pines that look so magnificent in the film.  In his view, this put the settlers into an intense conflict with "these huge and overwhelming prideful and evil forests."  So, it was to obstruct an impending tree holocaust that  the trees joined the witches in wiping out the Puritans.

This, I must say, is a decidedly anti-Christian notion.  According to the Bible, God has given man dominion over the forests.  Of course, man must act responsibly in his relationship to the Earth ("work it and watch over it," says Genesis).  But a man is allowed to chop down a tree to build a cabin and he can if he wants chop down further trees to warm himself by a roaring fire.     

The great thinkers produced by the Puritans' educational system were not ones to endorse the wanton destruction of forests.  Their learning extended into a comprehensive study of science and nature.  Kelly wrote, "By gaining more intimate knowledge into His creations, they believed it allowed them to become closer to their creator.  Anyone allowed to know the innermost workings of His world was clearly in His grace."

I can think of one distinct individual who would have a problem with the tree-chopping.  Who has the greatest resentment of man's dominion over Earth's resources?  It is the very same evil creature who ran around the film in the guise of a black goat.  As the Biblical story goes, Satan held a festering jealousy of the elevated status that man was given in God's creation.  He could never understand this privilege.  What is man that God is so mindful of him?  Why should he deserve such a special place?  Why should God crown him with glory and honor?  The jealous fallen angel craved to punish man and bring about his downfall.  This nasty little film is Satan's wet dream. 

Satan smiles.


Additional notes

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) was another film that influenced The Witch.


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