Prejudice and persecution in a modern day witching world
Whether whipped up by a political party, or stemming from ingrained racism, there is always a swath of the country that seems to need a target. A group or minority to vilify and blame for their own misfortune or simply for inevitable change. Writer/director Elle Callahan (Head Count) neatly draws an example from the past and plants it in modern times, reminding us that times have changed in some ways, yet others, not so much.
Witch Hunt is set in a modern United States where witches exist and are feared by the general populace; and find themselves firmly in the sights of the US government. On a remote farmhouse in Southern California, high schooler Claire (Gideon Adlon) lives with her widowed mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell) and twin brothers (Cameron and Nicolas Crovetti). Peer pressure, media, and school assignments have permeated her thinking, and started to deprive her of sympathy for the witches’ plight, something complicated by her mother’s role in a underground railroad, helping smuggle witches across the border to the safe harbor of Mexico. Claire’s views are soon challenged by the arrival of two young witches, Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell). Bonding with the older sister, she starts to better understand the nature of these outcasts, and also her own connection to them.
Many will cite The Handmaid’s Tale, the X-Men series, or the Trump administration as points of comparison, but the use of witches as an allegory for persecution, and putting a demographic in their place has been used for hundreds of years. Callahan piggybacks off this age old tale of prejudice and merges it with a current one, looking to our friends south of the border and the wall between us. The film barely scratches the surface of what is hinted to be a fascinating world. An 11th amendment stating “no person may practice witchcraft in the United States of America”. A Bureau of Witchcraft Investigation (BWI) putting out “blacklists” to warn the populace about potential witches, and rounding them up on buses once confirmed. Schools measuring moles and deploying classic witch tests in a school swimming pool. The climate of fear created is largely explored within the confines of Claire’s schools, where “magic in the blood” is used as a derogatory slur. Rather than expanding upon this unnerving situation, Witch Hunt follows a more intimate path, that of Claire’s conflict, born out of her fear of witches (fueled by her friends and government), anger at her mother placing their family in danger, and her sympathy for these people. The burgeoning friendship between her and Fiona is deftly handled and clearly the most well considered and constructed aspect of the film.
While one can appreciate the intentions of Callahan in focusing in on this authentic and intimate relationship, we remain armed with the knowledge of these persecutions swirling around them. Emotional weight is often lacking, anger at these injustices feels underdeveloped, and as a result the film struggles to maintain impetus. The potency glimpsed in a brilliantly constructed opening, depicting a modern day burning at the stake, is never truly felt again. Some of the actions depicted also strain credulity. The casualness at which giant human-sized boxes are wheeled around the region, refugees being allowed to not just eat dinner with the family, but abscond to local bars. Claire’s anger at her mother is frankly justified given her rather reckless actions that endanger her family’s safety. What also feels strange is how generally accepted all of this is. No real push-back, despite the clear violation of human rights. Again, the wider world is a mystery that casts its shadow over proceedings.
While some of the creative choices may better position the tale to connect with younger audiences, there remains a lot to appreciate in Witch Hunt. A stark rustic aesthetic makes good use of a low budget. A delicate score from composer Blitz//Berlin marries well with some evocative dream sequences. Above all the friendship between Claire and Fiona is beautifully rendered. While the focus of Witch Hunt may feel off, there is a unmistakable vision on show from Elle Callahan.