By Thomas Puhr.
Embodies the most grating qualities of the message movie. Calling this supernatural allegory on-the-nose would be giving it far too much credit.”
Most, if not all, films convey a message – implicit or explicit – but some are a message; that is, they have little reason to exist beyond communicating an often baldly obvious social position. Such films – think Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004) – are usually not as nuanced and probing as their makers seem to think. The same may be said for Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt (2021), which embodies the most grating qualities of the message movie. Calling this supernatural allegory on-the-nose would be giving it far too much credit.
Callahan, who also wrote the screenplay, envisions an alternate contemporary United States wherein witchcraft is strictly outlawed and practicing witches are burned at the stake by the evil BWI (Bureau of Witchcraft Investigations). Children of convicted witches are viewed with suspicion, if not outright hatred. Many of them hide out in safehouses until they can cross the border into a more-accepting Mexico (to be extra diligent, the authorities have lined the border wall with salt). For those wondering if this already-thin allegory can be stretched any thinner in order to trivialize other marginalized groups – besides the obvious parallels with undocumented citizens and Dreamers – never fear: In an ill-conceived attempt to pander to LGBTQ audiences, a few lines about how witches are born with their special skills are thrown in for good measure.
Gideon Adlon (daughter of Better Things’ Pamela Adlon) is angsty teen Claire, whose mother runs one such safehouse. When two runaway orphans – Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and her younger sister Shae (Echo Campbell) – arrive at the home, Claire finds a kindred spirit in Fiona and questions her once-ambivalent attitude toward this ostracized group. You can fill in the rest from there quite easily, as Witch Hunt draws from all the standard tropes of pseudo-dystopian YA literature and film. The unequivocally evil bad guy, the loner teen getting caught up in a rebellion, the inevitable flight from home: they’re all there. Of course, the premise is inherently absurd; but rather than leaning into this silliness and entering satirical territory, all involved seem hellbent on making the proceedings as awkwardly self-serious (and self-righteous) as possible.
Given the bluntness with which Witch Hunt delivers its message, one must consider its target audience: those who already feel the way Callahan does. And it’s this distinction which reveals the extent of the film’s cynicism. It’s not trying to change any minds; rather, it caters to (and comforts) those who agree with it. It doesn’t help that the marginalized people in this poorly realized world are pale, red-haired women. The whole enterprise smacks of the reductionism one would find in a “reverse racism” tirade: “What if we were the ones being attacked?” “How awful that would be!” High schoolers who find The Crucible’s holier-than-thou grandstanding too subtle may eke something out of Callahan’s soapboxing, but to anyone else it will surely feel patronizing, if not glib.
Such shortcomings can never be surmounted entirely, but their collective blow could have been softened by other strengths: say, striking visuals or genuine chills. Witch Hunt, for instance, also tries to be something of a horror film, but it fails on this front too; of its many disappointments, this one is certainly the most surprising, since Callahan’s debut feature – 2018’s lo-fi Head Count – pointed to a fresh voice in genre film, one which could creatively work around obvious budgetary constraints to generate tension. Her sophomore effort, by contrast, relies on age-old scare tactics; whenever things are a bit dry – which, it turns out, is quite often – she’ll jump cut to Fiona and Shae’s mother screaming as she burns at the stake.
To their credit, Adlon and Cowen share some chemistry. Their friendship feels believable, and the film’s strongest moments are those in which the two just get to hang out and talk. But Callahan’s reach exceeds her grasp; rather than focusing on this central relationship, she introduces a number of stock peripheral characters, including a suspicious neighbor and some school friends of Claire’s who seem to have been teleported from an episode of Pretty Little Liars. To make matters worse, she also includes references to Thelma & Louise (1991) just to set up a baffling riff on the road movie’s iconic finale.
You may very well think I’m spending too much time thinking about this silly movie. I probably am. So let me end with a simple suggestion: Instead of seeking out Witch Hunt, watch the “Ginger Kids” episode of South Park, in which Eric Cartman begins a vendetta to eradicate the town of so-called gingers. I’m only half kidding; the episode shares some genuine parallels with this film (Cartman, once a hater of the red-haired, finds himself drawn into their world and fighting for their cause), the crucial distinction being that it’s well aware of how ridiculous it is.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.