I’m so lucky that I managed to remain relatively spoiler-free about The VVitch, Robert Eggers’ 2015 directorial debut. I was so excited when I saw it on Netflix’s Recently Added list. I may have screamed when I saw it. And I loved it from the moment that amazing title card popped up.
The movie takes place in 17th century New England. It’s spoken entirely in Jacobean English. I watched the movie with subtitles but I watch most movies with captions on since I’m secretly 80-years-old. William (Ralph Ineson, aka Dagmer Cleftjaw on Game of Thrones) and his family are exiled from the Puritan plantation they live in over a difference in interpretation of Scripture.
The family leaves the Plantation, hopeful that they’ll be settling God’s chosen land. Things go well at first. The mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie, another Game of Thrones actor, who played Lysa Arryn) even gives birth to a baby.
Their eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching baby Samuel when he goes missing. They search the woods for a week but never find him. Meanwhile, we see a witch slaughtering a baby and making a balm of its fat.
Tensions rise as Katherine is increasingly hostile towards Thomasin. Their harvest isn’t good and William is trying to trap animals to supplement their meager stores. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), their oldest son, goes missing while in the woods trapping with Thomasin. It’s impossible for the family to not notice that all these bad things are happening when Thomasin is around. Caleb had their only gun and horse so the family is truly in danger now. Thomasin is the one who finds Caleb, insensible and babbling about witches. Their creepy younger siblings, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) accuse Thomasin of bewitching them and making them forget their prayers.
The lack of supplies and death of Caleb pushes the family to its breaking point. I don’t want to give too much away about whether or not there really is a witch and who the witch could be.
The number one thing that struck me about the movie was the cinematography. It made me really grateful that I took some art history classes because scenes frequently reflected 17th century Dutch paintings and 17th century woodcarvings. This may be accidental. The use of light is a major trademark of Dutch painting and, according to the cinematographer, the movie was lit primarily with natural light. Anyway, here are some shots that I though resembled the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer.
This scene of the Governor and prominent men of the plantation judging William and his family reminded me of the painting “Syndics of the Draper’s Guild” by Rembrandt.
There’s this popular image of the Puritans wearing all black clothes. This idea came from the fact that so many portraits are of prominent people wearing their best clothes. I appreciate that the family in this movie wears colored clothes and it’s just the Governor and his colleagues in what are probably their best clothes.
Here’s a shot of the family leaving the plantation.
The light and clouds resembles Rembrandt’s “The Stone Bridge.”
This shot of Thomasin at work reminds me of Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” because of the lighting and “Portrait of a Young Woman” because of the way Thomasin is looking at the viewer.
I’m not saying these pictures were consciously used to influence the look of the film, but I think the filmmakers may have had these pictures in the back of their mind as they formulated the look and feel of the movie.
That being said, Eggers has stated how influenced he was by the works of Goya. I think “Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat)” is a clear influence for Black Phillip, the creepy black goat that Mercy and Jonas whisper to and sing about.
I don’t want to post screencaps from the movie because I want you to be surprised but I think the engravings of Durer and de Gheyn II influenced the look of the possible witches.
The shots are frequently very symmetrical until the end, when the movie becomes very chaotic. Thomasin is frequently the focus which makes sense since so many characters are focused on figuring out if she’s truly the witch or not. Here are some shots that I liked.
So, are there really witches in the woods tormenting this family? The ending is somewhat ambiguous for me, only because of this one detail I noticed. At one point, the father is holding up an ear of corn. It looked funny. I thought it was just Indian corn but then I thought it might be ergot, the fungus that’s blamed for much of the witch trials.
The thing to remember about this movie is that regardless if there really are supernatural forces afflicting the family, they truly believe they’re afflicted. They’re in dire straights, without enough supplies and winter is coming.
There’s an eerie hare that seems to appear whenever there’s misfortune.
They believe that even one misstep can cause them to lose favor in God’s eyes. They’re part of a faith where even baby Samuel may be doomed to Hell because he’s unbaptized and everyone is born with sin. Consider this, at one point Caleb lies to his mother, telling her that he was in the woods looking for an apple tree. Then, when Caleb is having a fit, he coughs up an entire apple. Is this a reminder to him and his family that lying is a sin? That God has indeed turned his back on them?
Aside from the cinematography, the movie features an incredibly strong performance by Anya-Taylor Joy. You can’t help but be drawn in as the conflict with her family grows.
What really helps keep this movie tense is the amazing score. It mixes choral chants with traditional instruments. Some of the drumming resembles the Japanese drumming in season two of Hannibal.
While not necessarily scary, the movie is incredibly tense. It’s beautiful and not like any other movie in the genre except maybe Häxan.