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Whatever sin led to the banishment of William and his family from their colonial New England plantation at the beginning of Robert Eggers' directorial debut, "The Witch," remains unknown throughout the film. In fact, much of what occurs on screen is an enduring mystery. We don't know whether it was William's sin alone, or whether Thomasin, his eldest daughter and the child who eventually emerges as the film's central character, is somehow to blame. She later bears the brunt of her family's scorn and reprimand after their youngest child, Samuel, vanishes.
There are plenty of sins to choose from and each character seems steeped in their own Puritan guilt. There is the sin of birth; the sin of lust; the sin of idleness and idolatry on the part of the young twins, Jonas and Mercy; the sins that William confesses to on his knees as he licks the dust of the earth in repentance for his prideful piety; and most poignantly, the sin of Thomasin's emerging sexuality as she begins her menstruation.
A witch's energy is distinctly feminine and perhaps speaks to the threat that men in patriarchal societies perceive at any display of female strength or agency. It is no coincidence that nature — which, for centuries, man has attempted to conquer — is imagined as feminine.
William, who looks like a melting Christ, sells a silver chalice belonging to his wife, Katherine, to buy a hunting rifle, and allows Katherine to accuse and deride Thomasin for the theft. Son Caleb carries his father's gun, much too large for his frame, projecting a masculine need to bring order through violence. This struggle for power, represented by the interplay between the male and female members of the family, pervades just as the witch comes to embody the self-destructive nature of a power repressed.
"The Witch" is full of symbols: a broken egg with a dead bird inside; a crow feeding from a bloodied breast; an apple regurgitated from the mouth of a child who lies "pale as death, naked and witched"; William's great piles of firewood; the blackened corn in the field; a horned goat name Black Phillip with whom Jonas and Mercy appear to commune; Katherine's confession to her husband of her youthful affection for Jesus; the recurring shock of red against the palette of gray skies and straw; and blood from a goat's udder dribbling from an overturned milking pail. These do not, however, coalesce to suggest some specific moral lesson.
More fever dream than narrative drama, "The Witch" rides the line between excessive and withholding. What is left unseen still terrifies and much of the action occurs in near darkness. The interior scenes glow thanks to the gauzy candlelight, adding a softness to the edges of the frame that one imagines might obscure some unthinkable creature. But in moments of gruesome violence or great suspense, Eggers' camera doesn't turn away. Rather, it follows the children a bit too closely, like God, and hovers during scenes of intense bloodletting.
The landscape, the tableau of the farmhouse set off against the backdrop of a grim forest, suggests Eugene O'Neill, as does the enduring shame and torment each member of the family feels by nature of their proscribed actions. They awaken from dreams and slip into nightmares. It becomes difficult to know what comprises the actual events of the film and what is spiritual texture. Even the animals look possessed.
For all the talk of sin there is little evidence of true devotion. The family is violent and accusatory. By the time the film crawls bleeding to its climax, the witch herself having taken a variety of different forms, what prayers began the nightmare devolve into so much possessed screaming that you can only look on in horror, but a system of morality never quite emerges.
The folk tales that inspired "The Witch" were developed to deal with the burdens of life in an oppressively hierarchical society. Eggers' film, then, is another retelling of a necessary pseudo-parable, one whose lessons we still crave. We keep coming up with and coming back to such stories, attempting to account for the sin and the rot, and our own atonements, as the truth still lies beyond our comprehension.