While Risen, the story of the Resurrection through the eyes of a Roman soldier, made a respectable showing at the box office last weekend, hot on its heels was a decidedly different sort of movie: The Witch, a low-budget horror picture in which Jesus is mentioned a lot, but Satan gets all the screen time.
Well, I suppose that depends on whether or not you believe the devil actually speaks through Black Phillip, one of the goats kept by a devout family on their 1630s New England farm. This is the claim of the family’s young twins, but they’re notorious pranksters who also have a habit of accusing their teen sister (Anya Taylor-Joy) of being a witch. When tragedy strikes, followed by strange and unexplained occurrences, the parents begin to wonder if the twins speak truth.
Written and directed by Robert Eggers, who drew much of the language and production details from letters, journals and court records of the time, The Witch creates an atmosphere soaked in religious fear and dread. We learn that the family has been banished from a nearby settlement for reasons that are unclear, but seem to have something to do with the father’s insistence that their church had drifted from the “pure” Gospel. And so they’ve settled on a piece of land at the edge of a gray wood, a milieu Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke depict with a supernatural insidiousness. Even the smoke curling from a chimney seepingly suggests not cozy domesticity, but a poisonous gas.
What follows is a frightening, masterfully controlled depiction of evil without and evil within. The father (Ralph Ineson) 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. As for the evil without, The Witch holds nothing back in its depiction of awful occult practices, right through to its challenging ending. The witch of the title, whom we see in graphic glimpses, is no mere trifle from a children’s fairy tale.
The Witch creates an atmosphere soaked in religious fear and dread.
While its seeming embrace of the occult has earned The Witchan endorsement from no less an authority than The Satanic Temple, that doesn’t mean the movie should be met with irrational fear. For Christian horror-movie fans, it functions as a provocative consideration of the ways religious extremists may be particularly susceptible to the devil’s whims. When it comes to encountering evil, the family in the film veers wildly back and forth between “triumphalism” and “defeatism,” two theological extremes John Stott discusses in The Cross of Christ:
Some [Christians] are triumphalists, who see only the decisive victory of Jesus Christ and overlook the apostolic warnings against the powers of darkness. Others are defeatists, who see only the fearsome malice of the devil and overlook the victory over him which Christ has already won. The tension is part of the Christian dilemma between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.’ …An overemphasis on the ‘already’ leads to triumphalism, the claim to perfection — either moral (sinlessness) or physical (complete health) — which belongs only to the consummated kingdom, the ‘not yet.’ An overemphasis on the ‘not yet’ leads to defeatism, an acquiescence in continuing evil which is incompatible with the ‘already’ of Christ’s victory.
Eager to prove themselves worthy of a triumphant Jesus Christ, the family in The Witch places their hope in moral standards that they cannot keep, and are therefore crushed when those standards are not met. It is the father’s insistence on living in purity, after all, that dooms his family to the woods. At the same time, he also grants the devil too much credit and influence over their lives, as when he blames Satan for their inability to sleep. Ultimately, this bedeviled clan holds to an incompatible theology that fails to recognize their actual state of grace, as children of God living in both the “already” and the “not yet.” And in refusing to allow for grace, they become easy pickings for the witch.