The Witch

[MODERATE SPOILER ALERT: No major plot spoilers for The Witch below, but if you're a purist about these things, as I can be, feel free to skip this entry]

Early contender for most feminist movie I'll see all year is Robert Eggers The Witch. It's been mis-marketed a bit as a horror film, and given the huge box office returns of horror sensations like Paranormal Activity, it's not surprising that studios might try to run that playbook. The movie is less a pure horror film than one of oppressive dread, and those are far more disturbing.

A jump-scare-filled horror movie is heart-pounding for the time you're watching it in the theater, then is quickly forgotten. But a movie like Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, one of my all-time favorites, laden with a feeling of inescapable doom, has been lodged in the deep recesses of my memory ever since I saw it, like a splinter that burrowed under my defensive psychic membrane. What is despair but the absence of hope? A movie of dread builds a world in which you see all the characters stumbling towards the cliff and it feels both believable and inevitable. The Witch is less a horror film than a tragedy.

The false advertising of The Witch is less worrisome as an aesthetic misrepresentation than it is as a marketing blunder. It may chase away people who don't like horror movies and disappoint those who come in expecting to be grasping popcorn by the sweaty palmful to soothe their nerves. It's no romantic comedy, some of the images are disturbing, but it's more of an arthouse horror film than you'd suspect from the trailer.

As with the most profound horror movies, The Witch locates true horror in ourselves, in Christianity and the deep-seated guilt it plants in every member of this family banished to live on the edge of a forest. A mother who doesn't feel like she is a supportive wife or adequate caretaker for her children. A father who, well-versed in the Bible but not with a hunting rifle, doesn't feel he can provide for his family. A son who feels shame whenever he glances at his sister's bosom with the first longings of puberty. And a daughter, played with remarkable emotional precision by Anya Taylor-Joy, who chafes against the limited options available for women in 1600's Puritan society.

The movie can be read many ways. It's also a story of a family evicted from the human construct of society but ill-equipped to conquer and tame nature, represented here in all its destructive power by the fairy tale trope of the dark forest and the titular witch who dwells there (played, in one scene, by Victoria's Secret super model Sarah Stephens, which we discovered much to our amusement from a look at IMDb).

The ending is controversial, and I have yet to decide where I come down on it. My initial reaction was that it was too much, that the movie should have ended earlier. I might have left it as an alternate ending for the DVD.

Still, one can understand why Eggers might want to take the movie all the way there, just to stir up some sympathy for the devil.