Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: The Witch

If you know me, you know I’ve never felt a shortage of anxiety. Nor a surplus of sleep. So the superficial charms of the horror genre — the rollercoaster of adrenaline, the future terror of a dark bedroom — don’t exactly bewitch me. When I do muster up the courage (and cash for nerve-reducing theatre booze), I don’t do it to be thrilled or seduced. I do it to be struck. Not necessarily by a statement or a story, but a new spin on something inside. If fear is a reflection of deep emotional truths, a great horror film acts a sort of visual thesaurus, expressing a general feeling in specific, evocative shorthand. It coaxes something out of you that you didn’t know you knew.

So what should I do with The Witch? To its credit, it never even tried to rob me of sleep — less Craven than Kubrick (and more Bergman than either) it abstains from jump scares with an almost Puritanical resolve. Despite every byline to the contrary, Robert Eggers clearly did not set out to make a “scary movie” so much as a moody, formalist drama about scary things. And by any formal rubric, it’s a very impressive debut. The soundtrack is Under the Skin levels of eerie, the attention to detail admirable, the tone thick and wonderfully consistent. It’s a great exercise in restrained, dread-infused mood building, wholly deserving of praise for its construction. But I can’t pinpoint what, if anything, it actually set out to build.

Which isn’t to say that I need story to be king, or that I can’t appreciate tone-driven art on its own terms. I just couldn’t find any new emotional ideas to latch onto here. Certainly not in its individual parts. In perfect fairy-tale form, every image in this movie is a direct portrayal of a fear I already had, phrased in diction I already knew — creepy twins chanting, possessed children rising from beds, zealously religious knife-wielding mothers. And not in the way it weaves them together. Like a concept album or illustrated storybook, it deftly blends everything into a uniform aesthetic (in this case, muted, gray 17th century New England), but the particular context — while admittedly fresh — only served to alienate me. The whole didn’t add to the parts. Thematically there are promising glimmers of originality: the story functions as a sort of upside-down Job, where God is silent, faith is terrifying, but Satan is personal and proselytizing. Zealots in the Hands of a Jealous Devil. But whenever it seems to push the message one way — against the oppression of religious hysteria or towards something more fantastical — something seems to come along and undercut it. It’s interesting, but muddy.

Maybe that’s as good a summary as I’ll get for The Witch: interesting but muddy. I’m left praising the craft and dedication and subtlety, and wondering what all that subtlety was for. Nothing expanded on my own imagination while I watched it, and when I went to bed that night, nothing was lodged in my skull. Chris, Carson, and I had a good disagreement about it in this week’s 400th episode.

See my review on Letterboxd