Monday, February 22, 2016

The Witch: Losing faith in the face of evil

Film reviews rely on the perspective of the reviewer. I can't compare a film I've seen to a film I haven't seen. Even if a reviewer says they don't bring personal perspectives into a review, the truth is often different. Keep that in mind as you read this review of THE WITCH.

The bulk of the film centers on the family of William and Katherine and their five children in 1639 Massachusetts. This is pre-Salem witch trials, but the Puritan faith is strong in the characters. The film opens with William accused of preaching out of turn and him defending himself saying that he only preaches from the Bible and has a firm belief in Christ. He won't renounce his sermons and is banished from the plantation. Director Robert Eggers gives us the most people we see at a time in the entire film here and as the family rides away outside of the village gates. From here, the family is on its own, isolated and left to their fate.

The story then centers on Thomasine, the eldest child, and a blossoming teen girl (in other words, one at just the right age to get involved in witchcraft). She is mostly responsible for a family tragedy: the loss of the infant Sam. Eggers shows us that the baby has ben taken by a witch--in the context of the film, there is a witch--but the rest of the family doesn't know that.

Isolated and with corn that won't grow, we now have a family drama that feels much more modern that what was expected. The children bicker, the parents step in and animosity brews. Blame, and in this Christian context, sin abound until ultimately, the family disintegrates.

Propelling the media storm around the film is an endorsement by the Satanic Temple. They keyed in on the pressures and persecutions that can and did thrive among the Puritans and see it as a continued rebuke of current Christian hypocrisy. I don't entirely disagree with them on these points, but again, this is a matter of perspective.

I am a Christian and I love horror movies. Director Scott Derrickson (SINISTER and the upcoming Marvel film DR. STRANGE) is a Christian and has been highly influential in the genre over the last decade. In 2005, he said, "To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it's unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that's something that a lot of Christians don't want to do."

It is easy for outsiders to criticize Christians for believing in God in the face of evil because all too often it appears that evil still wins. As you can imagine, and without giving away too much of the film, this is what happens in THE WITCH. Bad things happen to a family struggling with their faith. Pride, doubt, hate, and fear take over and even those who have done their best to remain steadfast in their faith are affected by those who have given up, even the innocent.  So while the satanists and other anti-Christian viewers can see this film and come away from in their beliefs that faith, God and Christ will only let you down, I came out of the film having seen a family struggle with the same fears and doubts modern Christians have and all too often succumb to. I am far from perfect in my faith. I have doubts and fears and sometimes question God and often defy His will and give into temptation because I'm human. The Puritans were human and made grave mistakes. The satanists embracing THE WITCH are human and I'm sure many of them are just as flawed as I am. There is not a perfect Christian on this planet nor any perfect human, no matter what religion. This movie could bring the gap and allow us all to talk about how we perceive evil and fight the darkness within us all. 

I'm afraid, however, that it will still be divisive. Most Christians will hear that an R-rated horror film has the support of satanists and not go anywhere near it. The satanists will claim a victory over religious hypocrisy and America's still-viable Puritanical roots.

In his 2005 interview, Derrickson nails this quandary when he says, "And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I'm talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don't do these things. It is a genre that's full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things."

I would encourage Christians and non-Christians to see this film and maybe even see it together. We can learn much from each other but we have to do one of the hardest things to do: open our minds and hearts and listen.

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