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SXSW 2021 Review: 'Witch Hunt' wonders if we've really changed since the 1690s

All of them, (mostly white) witches.

Witches about to undergo a sink test.
(Image: © Courtesy of SXSW.)

Our Verdict

Great use of Pagan lore and old witchfinder tactics, but a whitewashed cast pulls from the impact of an otherwise strong feature in 'Witch Hunt.'

For

  • 🔮Love the use of the mother, the maiden, and the crone.
  • 🔮Good use of old "witchfinder" tactics and Pagan lore.
  • 🔮Strong illustration of how all women suffer when true witch hunts come into play.

Against

  • 🔮I appreciate the attempt of a misdirect in making the vast majority of the witches white, but the lack of POC wasn't worth the small narrative payoff.

Witch Hunt is part of our SXSW 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

This is going to be a difficult one to talk about without spoilers. It's not that there's nothing to discuss — it's just that there are some issues with the film that stem from certain plot points that are best saved for the film itself. That said, Witch Hunt is, by and large, a mostly capable look the persecution that modern day witches could expect from an often still bigoted society. That "often still bigoted" is related to my biggest critique of the film, but we'll get there in just a bit.

Witch Hunt takes place in a modern day America where witchcraft has been made illegal. Amendment 11 states that practicing magic is punishable by death. The government also hopes to take it one step further with Amendment 6, a ratification that would require the kin of all those charged with witchcraft to register themselves with the government. Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell) operates a kind of underground railroad in her home, working with Jacob (Treva Etienne) and a small network of folks helping to transport witches to Mexico where witchcraft is still legal. Martha's daughter, Claire (Gideon Adlon), struggles with the fact that taking in the witches means that she can't be a normal teen. However, her tune changes when she meets Fiona (Abigainl Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell). Once she starts to see them as real people, Claire's perceptions begin to shift and she eventually makes friends with their guests.

The film is laden with Pagan iconography. The butterfly on Claire's desk ties back to an old connection between the creatures and witches, with both of them being believed to steal butter in olden times. Then, in her dreams, she sees three witches representing the mother, the maiden and the crone. Beyond the visuals, Witch Hunt utilizes archaic witchfinder tactics like measuring the distance between moles, the belief in witch's marks, and the ever-cruel sink test where young women are plunged into the water to either drown or float. Should you float, you won't be met with a kinder fate. Only the witches float, and witches get the pyre.

Watching Witch Hunt, you can at least intellectually understand why the team behind it elected to keep the majority of the ones we see white. America's bigotry isn't lost on most of those who are going to find enjoyment in this film, and the rest of the witches' whiteness is used as a slight misdirect for a payoff at the very end of the film. That being said, I'm not sure that the lack of witches of color in the film is worth the slight narrative payoff. There are people of color in the film, but we see them play brief bit parts or killed as a result of the witches' persecution. If they're going to die as a result of witchcraft anyway, why couldn't we have just cast some women of color for the main ensemble?

That (major) critique aside, the film largely does what it sets out to do. The commentary on the issues and "choices" women face is well-illustrated — if not lessened by the lack of more backgrounds — and there are plenty of moments where the BWI (Bureau of Witch Investigation) highlight that they're misogynistic skeeves. There are a couple of solid spooks to keep viewers on their toes, and the the leads are all easy to root for. Fiona and Claire's relationship ends up being rather heartwarming despite its teen gaffes, and their payoff in the last frame is positively dripping with charm. 

It's a real pity that Karen™ wasn't the one who fell off the roof though.