On my second viewing of The Witch, I found a lot more to chew on, thanks in large part to the perspective afforded me by Katy Waldman’s analysis in Slate, especially this bit about the ending:
I can’t overstate just how shocking this moment feels, when you realize that the movie has up until now perpetrated a fundamental deception about its own point of view. All along, [director Robert] Eggers has stood on the Devil’s side; the triumph of the forces he’s trained us to dread and fear actually constitutes a happy ending.
Indeed, it is William who is the film’s true villain, a misguided religious zealot for whom even the Puritans – austere practitioners of perhaps the most thankless strain of Christianity in history – were not sufficiently uncompromising in their faith. William abandons this community and takes his family along without regard for its well-being, hastening its downfall not only by his incompetence as a provider, but also by the brutal self-loathing he endlessly advocates. “I was conceived in sin,” Caleb recites under his father’s direction, apparently for the umpteenth time. “I am empty of grace and bent unto sin, and that continually.”
In his most frustrated moments, William’s preferred catharsis is chopping firewood. When he is finally felled by Black Phillip, a wide shot shows us for the first time just how big William’s towering pile of firewood has grown – a quantitative representation of the enormity of his fruitless struggle, which ultimately, literally buries him. It’s also worth noting that firewood’s purpose is to illuminate, and William’s wood pile going unused suggests that his fundamentalism is tantamount to willful blindness.
As for Black Phillip, his role as the path to liberation from William’s oppression is summed up nicely in an early scene, when Mercy states offhandedly, “Black Philip says I can do as I like.”
In the final scene, the celebration of Thomasin’s euphoric embrace of “evil” – at no point is it framed as capitulation, which conventional wisdom made me overlook on my first viewing – is a slyly subversive delight. The ecstasy she radiates has so much more impact when you realize she has won, not lost.