Writer-director Robert Eggers’s “The Witch” (or maybe “The VVitch,” and presumably read with an Eastern-European accent) is subtitled “A New-England Folktale.” As has been pointed out by people far more qualified than me, it’s not a folktale at all. No, “The Witch” is a movie, which may seem obvious, but it bears repeating. Because movies are primarily a visual art form, and “The Witch” is a movie about seeing, or rather, it is a movie about perception.
Which is not to say that “The Witch” is interested in telling us things happened one way, then pulling a “Fight Club” on us. Not at all. The film is quite comfortable in its Puritan context. So while its seemingly ambiguous symbology is equally comfortable being interpreted from a modern standpoint–hence feminist readings of the film, Freudian and/or Jungian readings, religious readings, et al, et al–we need to remember that the symbols are quite real for the characters on screen. Regardless of how you interpret it, one thing is clear: When it comes to “The Witch,” what you see is what you get. The question is simply what you see.
The initial issue that sets the movie into motion is a difference of perception–a difference in interpretation, specifically of the Christian bible. William (Ralph Ineson) and his family leave the plantation–the New World settlement, in modern parlance–over a difference in interpretation of “Christ’s true gospel.” They leave in one of the film’s most interesting sequences: from the point of view of the family’s wagon, the camera’s eye tracks backwards, the citizens of the plantation staring back at it, until the doors quietly close on the camera. One world has been removed from our vision, and we will never see it again. Outside, on the edge of the woods, the exiled family gazes reverently into a patch of blue sky. Likewise, it is the only blue sky we will ever see in the film. The rest of the film will be framed with gray skies and dark woods.
Light and darkness become quickly important in any film about perception, and “The Witch” is no different. Of course, it’s a no brainer to shoot a horror film in the dark, but “The Witch” has obviously taken this tactic to another level (as if it would bother with anything that fits a conventional horror film). The film almost exclusively uses period candles to light its shots (the cinematography was by Jarin Blaschke), adding an air of authenticity while forcing us to experience the world of “The Witch” through the same perspective as the settlers onscreen. At least until we leave the darkness of the theater and begin to see the film with new, modern eyes.
What we see and what we fail to see continue to be important throughout the film. The baby Samuel is lost in an act of seeing and not seeing–a game of peekaboo that goes horribly south when Thomasin (Ana Taylor-Joy) is not looking. Later, when William witnesses the death of his son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and accuses Thomasin of witchcraft, he uses visuals as his proof. “What did I but see in my house?” he demands.
Thomasin counters, laying blame on the twins. When William confronts them, and realizes they are not as catatonic as they appear, Thomasin hisses, “Do you see now?”
But visuals are only as important as what you can actually perceive–like the baby that goes missing when our eyes are covered. After the film’s climax, when Thomasin meets the human form of Black Phillip, we see him only in suggestion; his face is entirely cut off by the camera, and his costume, hinting at wealth and nobility, melts into the blackness of the room.
The witch herself is a visual creature, appearing as extremes: a hoary hag in some scenes, a comely maiden, all full lips and long legs, in others. It is interesting to note that the latter form appears to a boy on the brink of adolescence, suggesting the witch knows something about the way we perceive, or would like to perceive, the world. Later in the film, an entity that appears as a hungry raven to the audience appears as a needy baby to a grieving mother. Much like our interpretations of the film, “The Witch” lets us to see what we want to see–or what we think we want to see–and allows us to draw our own conclusions.
Although the film toys with the way we perceive, it is ultimately a Puritan tale of absolutes. “It is God alone, not man, who knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not,” William tells his son on their foray into the woods. It is reality alone that knows what is reality and what it is not. From our limited perspective, true horror begins when what we perceive to be true breaks down, when the limited lights by which we think we see our reality are snuffed out, and all that remains for us is darkness.