I really enjoyed The Witch. It’s the kind of horror movie that doesn’t go for jump-scares, but creeps under your skin and makes itself at home for days after you’ve seen it. But there’s one thing that bothers me about it.
There’s a lot to pick apart in this “New England folktale,” but one of the key components was Thomasin’s role in the family, and in the greater world. She attracts Caleb’s wandering gaze, her mother’s ire, her father’s goals of “bounding Thomasin out.” It’s possible to read The Witch‘s folktale as one that delivers Thomasin from the evil (or at least mistreatment) of her family to a happier life. The movie distinctly notes that Thomasin is budding into a woman, and while her family isn’t sure how to handle her the witches of the forest are. They see all she can be.
But that’s only insofar as the movie allows us into her mindset. At the end when we see her make her choice to “live deliciously” as Black Phillip/the Devil offers her it’s bittersweet and triumphant: Her family has died around her (or whatever happened to the twins), the farm fallen to ruin, and she has no where to go where she won’t be punished for crimes she did not commit. And so she chooses witchcraft, and becomes more happy and free than we’ve ever seen her. It’s a happy ending, if the movie pivots itself around her.
While The Witch seems to take pride in not answering all our questions (sometimes justly so) it also leaves us unclear on where Thomasin’s headspace really is: As her brother’s adulthood starts to observe her own, as her mother takes out her anguish on her, as her father lets her take the fall—does she know? Does she care? As Angelica Basten wrote for Vague Visages “We watch many figures gaze upon Thomasin, but never are we privy to her gaze.” It’s a subtle shift in construction, but it’s something that, as Basten writes, might not be so foreign or extraneous to a female filmmaker.
It’s the sort of thing that’s so unappreciated, almost always unnoticed. It wasn’t until yesterday’s #BitchFlicks chat, when they asked how film could change if schools emphasized women’s film history. More people would start to realize the singularity of our film narratives; how few stories are told from a woman’s gaze and how conditioned we are to see men’s as “normal.”
It’s exciting to see a woman throw off the shackles of “the norm” and accept the freedom offered her, even if that comes in dark, mysterious ways. The Witch is a great example of that. I just really hope that was intentional.