A pilgrim family is banished from a New England settlement, the father denouncing the village elders as “false Christians.” William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickey), and their five children resettle in a gray clearing on the outskirts of spooky woods. William kneels in the brush and kisses the earth, which I guess you could do in the seventeenth century without getting Lyme disease. Soon they are dealing with the usual colonial hardships: bad crops, disobedient children, sinful thoughts, baby-snatching witches.
The narrative’s natural-supernatural turbulence is focused on William and Katherine’s pubescent eldest daughter, Thomasin, superbly played by Anya Taylor-Joy, whose eyes are as big as the moon beneath which, in a very silly sequence, the witch dances. Infant Samuel disappears on her watch, vanishing in a rustle of grass between rounds of peek-a-boo. Things go to hell after that, and Thomasin’s family begins to suspect her of making a dastardly pact with a rather cute shaggy goat named Black Phillip.
The Witch is effective as a chiller, and the acting is tremendous—everyone’s wound so tight you expect springs to pop out of their heads. But we are aware from the first shot that this is a Serious Film, more Arthur Miller than Eduardo Sanchez, because the cinematography is trendily washed out, the better to show off the blood that spatters every other scene. There are visual echoes of Goya; the end title informs us loftily that much of the dialogue comes from period sources. The filmmakers are so desperate to be taken seriously that they’ve forgotten to have much fun.
And instead of thought, we get clichés: a lot of Introductory Calvinism, claustrophobic interiors flecked by (period-specific!) candlelight, an ending out of Women Who Run with the Wolves. Poor Ineson is forced to deliver the line “Did ye make some unholy bond with that goat?”
Successful genre work often recycles old tropes—the demons of adolescent sexuality have haunted folk literature for centuries. But The Witch is about as subtle as a jack in the box. Twice we see Thomasin’s brother Caleb steal a peek down her shirt and then feel guilty about it, and we’re supposed to infer that religion leads to shame, which leads to repression, which leads to making out with a witch disguised as a grown-up Red Riding Hood.
Why are smart critics falling for such dime-store psychology? Well, the psychology is an aspect of the reductive view of Puritanism the film perpetuates; to be blunt, most reviewers appear not to know much about Puritanism. Several reviews parrot the received wisdom: “fear and guilt”; “nightmarish . . . everyday life as a Puritan”; “Puritan repression.” Rodrigo Perez wonders at Indiewire if the family in the film is being punished because “despite their self-righteousness . . . they are sinners like the rest of mankind.” Drew McWeeny writes at Hitfix that the film draws on “New England’s long and awful relationship with ‘witchcraft.”’
One hardly knows where to begin. The central tenet of Puritanism was precisely that believers “are sinners like the rest of mankind.” No doubt many Puritans, like many film critics, were self-righteous. But Jonathan Edwards articulated a core theme of Calvinism when he wrote that “The deceitfulness of the heart of man appears in no one thing so much, as this of spiritual pride and self righteousness.” It is one thing to strive to recognize and overcome self-righteousness and fail; it is another to see it only in those to whom you feel superior.
As for New England’s relationship with “witchcraft,” it was indeed awful, but it was not long. As Marilynne Robinson, who has spent no little time among period sources, writes: “For Europeans, our Puritans showed remarkably little tendency to hunt witches, yet one lapse, repented of by those who had a part in it, has stigmatized them as uniquely inclined to this practice.” The juridical murder of twenty people is more than a “lapse,” of course, but we wouldn’t be so obsessed with what happened in Salem if it weren’t so uncharacteristic.
Other reviewers (David Edelstein at Vulture, Manohla Dargis in the Times, a particularly smug Anthony Lane in The New Yorker) seem to read the film as an updated Crucible: “Ah, we’re the real Puritans!” But for allegory to work, the vehicle has to be properly understood. To cast ourselves in the role of repressed, fanatical Puritans is to misrepresent the Puritans, if not ourselves.
While, like any body of human thought, what came to be called Puritanism had its share of unfortunate dogmatic elements, Robinson notes that these did not happen to include, at least not to an especial degree, “fear or hatred of the body, anxiety about sex, or denigration of women.” Such pathologies are found more readily elsewhere in Christian tradition.
These misrepresentations might seem minor, but they add up. Eggers asserts in an interview that “the Puritans had weird ideas about baptism.” Baptism had been a divisive social issue for the Puritans, but the film is concerned with the question of infant baptism. Caleb worries that Samuel is damned, since he wasn’t baptized. In fact, the Puritans were for the most part staunch opponents of the antipaedobaptists. Infant baptism was the norm among New England Puritans, which is weird only if you think baptism is weird.
Yes, the Puritans believed in predestination, though it is surely worth discovering what exactly that meant to them; and, yes, they were preoccupied with damnation (so was Dante, Robinson slyly notes). But these are aspects of a form of thought, not signs of superstitious ignorance and repression. It is nonsensical, Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in 1931, to view ‘‘the fathers of New England as a set of somber killjoys whose greatest pleasure was preventing simple folk from enjoying themselves, and whose principal object in life was to repress beauty and inhibit human nature.’’ And yet this is exactly how The Witch portrays them.
It’s easy enough to discover Puritanism in the fullness of its contradiction and nuance and intelligence. Francis Bremer’s Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction is a good place to start. The Marxist historian Christopher Hill’s Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England and The World Turned Upside Down are refreshingly free of bigotry and groupthink while rightly criticizing the Puritans where they deserve criticism. Robinson’s essays are widely available and acclaimed. And of course there are the writings of the Puritans themselves. John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, in particular, are writers of great beauty and power, whose breadth and liberality belie their reputations as stodgy hellfire-stokers.
I don’t expect film critics to have studied Calvin or Edwards, though I do expect them to be familiar with Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, whose respect for the viewer’s intelligence makes The Witch look like a Jerry Bruckheimer production. Dreyer’s tale of witchcraft, persecution, and erotic power is ambiguous and uncertain—interested in its very camerawork in questions—where Eggers’s film has it all figured out.
“The way we speak and think of the Puritans,” Robinson writes,
is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved. And it demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry. I know from experience that if one says the Puritans were a more impressive and ingratiating culture than they are assumed to have been, one will be heard to say that one finds repressiveness and intolerance ingratiating.
The makers of The Witch know this, too.