(Spoilers ahead. Ye hath been warned.)
Horror films have never been focused on the empowerment of their main characters, much less if those characters are women. It goes against the genre's mission statement. To elicit horror, to create fear from thin air and really terrify an audience is to leave an audience, and therefore a protagonist, the audience's stand-in, feeling helpless. Which makes Robert Eggers' directorial debut, The Witch and its implicit feminist message all the more refreshing.
Witches are the embodiment of female empowerment, and though now they are best known as lame halloween decorations, they used to be the epitome of terror. A free, powerful woman acting in her own self interest without needing a man? A woman that is more powerful than any man, just by virtue of her womanhood? For some, that is a horrifying concept today, let alone in the puritanical society of the early 17th century.
Make no mistake: the film is not only empowering, it is absolutely terrifying to boot, even garnering a resounding endorsement from the Satanic Church. While Eggers' story primarily focuses on religious devotion and human nature, The Witch is also about the extensive power of womanhood, and how terrifying that can be for some, both now and for a small, God fearing puritan family. Eggers takes his sweet time empowering his protagonist, but the endgame is devastatingly original and a welcome blip on the radar of many horror fans. Even if Eggers hadn't come out directly stating that the film was made with a feminist bent, the point shines through like pale moonlight on a coven. Eggers is uninterested in telling the type of story to which horror fans are accustomed, and both the witch and the audience is better for it.
The film, set in 1630, begins during the trial of one family for some unspoken slight to the puritan village. The family, led by patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), is cast out to the edge of the New England wilderness and soon after, strange occurrences start plaguing the family. First, the family infant is taken during a game of peekaboo with our protagonist, the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Johnson). The child may meet with a terrible fate at the hands of its kidnapper in the woods, but it is the film's first denial of traditional female duties.
One of the witches who resides in the wilderness pulverizes the child and anoints herself with its viscera, before flying into the night. The method may be brutal, but it is indicative of Eggers' theme. A woman who so violently rejects motherhood, the onus of a Purtian woman's existence, is inherently subversive.
After the disappearance, misfortune continues to plague the family, as crops fail and bullets backfire into William's face as he hunts a sinister rabbit. Fingers are pointed almost immediately at Thomasin, whom the family accuses repeatedly and intensely of dancing with the devil. Little do they know, an actual coven of witches waits in the wood, eagerly waiting to draw the oppressed daughter into the fold.
The betrayal and accusations are only made worse by the puritanical role Thomasin is forced to fill. She's treated, however shamefully he feels, as a sex object by her rapidly maturing brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). Her mere existence as a (reasonably) rebellious teenage girl is treated like a blight on the family, and even Thomasin's mother (Kate Dickie) is adamant to marry her off as soon as possible.
She's forced to be everything that is expected of her, besides what she actually wants to be. Does she even know what she wants to be? How could she? She's never had a chance to explore it.
Thomasin is kept essentially as a servant, wrangling the fraternal toddlers of the clan and the family's livestock, one of which can speak to the toddlers.
His name is Black Phillip and he whispers to them that Thomasin is wicked. And as the situation continues to deteriorate for the family, things only get worse for her. After a botched hunting trip, Caleb is lost to the forest while Thomasin returns unscathed, spurring on the suspicions of the family.
After Caleb is seduced by a witch in the forest, he is cursed and returned to his home, where Thomasin is the first to find him, naked and afraid. He is bedridden until a literally rapturous realization, and then falls dead. The method, again dripping in brutality, is in the service of a higher cause. Throughout the film, Caleb steals glances at his sister's budding bosom, treating one of the few women he knows as nothing more than a sex object. While this is understandable of a young boy on the cusp of puberty with no outlet for his urges, the witch he encounters is less forgiving and he is subsequently punished for it.
After the boy dies, and her remaining siblings try to convince William that is is her fault, Thomasin attempts to shift the blame to the toddlers, and a terrified William locks them all in the stable with the goats overnight. The puritanical, patriarchal attitudes of her era lock Thomasin in place, but when another witch comes in the night and takes the toddlers, she frees Thomasin. A fellow woman helps Thomasin break free of the barriers keeping her locked down.
Shortly thereafter, William lies dead at the hands (hooves?) of Black Phillip and Katherine is hysterical, convinced that Thomasin is the witch that has been terrorizing them since their exile. After a deadly struggle, Katherine lies dead, the last remaining tie that bound Thomasin to the old ways that kept her oppressed. After sleeping off the trauma, she goes to Black Phillip, who asks her "Dost thou wish to live deliciously?"
Thomasin slinks away into the wilderness, to join a dancing coven of witches around a fire and the film ends with Thomasin literally floating above the earth, laughing. The importance of Anya Taylor-Johnson's performance cannot be overstated. The visual transition from beleaguered servant to rapturous delight at her newfound life is transformative. A free woman, empowered by her own womanhood. Eggers sets it up to make us believe that the witches in the wood are nothing but explicitly evil, and then spends the entire rest of the film subverting that initial assumption in order to free Thomasin. The methods of liberation may be brutal, but so is the society in which she resides. And what could be more delicious than freedom?