Thirty years later, George Miller’s diabolical feminist parable feels relevant as hell. Gird your cherries.
I’d like to think that, hot off his medical residency, George Miller turned to the nearest reflective surface and muttered to himself “some day, you’re going to have a bewilderingly eclectic IMDb page.” Then, presumably, he hopped on his dune buggy, and rode off into the sunset to immediately begin shooting Mad Max.
All to say, Miller is a man of many talents: he wrote Babe; directed its weird and wonderful sequel; helmed the academy award winning Happy Feet franchise; and even served as producer and second unit director on the Sam Neil-starring sailboat thriller Dead Calm. In 1983, in between Mad Max sequels, Miller directed a segment for the Twilight Zone movie, which saw a bug-eyed John Lithgow feverishly trying to shoot a gremlin off the wing of a commercial airliner. Enamoured by his experience with Amblin Entertainment, and with an adapted screenplay of a recent work by American literary treasure John Updike in his possession, Miller made the (admittedly rocky) move to Hollywood. And so, we were blessed with The Witches of Eastwick.
Eastwick makes no equivocations about being feminist-leaning. With the opening credits still rolling, a freshly-divorced Jane (Susan Sarandon) is subjected to workplace harassment/sex blackmail in front of her band class. “You know he made a pass at me last week too?” recalls Michelle Pfeiffer’s Sukie between martini sips. “I can’t even stand to think about it, okay?” spits Alex, played by Cher, radiant in spite (or because) of a cowboy boot and sweatpants combo. It’s one of the most memorable and aspirational girls’ nights put to celluloid; with cheese whip, hooch, an objectionably large jar of pickles, and fierce, unmitigated gal pal support. If there’s a ladies’ night powerful enough to invoke satan, this is it. Unsatisfied with the men in town, and wanting more out of life, the trio half-jokingly intone the characteristics of their ideal man…inadvertently summoning who else but the super conspicuously named Daryl van Horne, aka the devil, aka Jack Nicholson.
Daryl is, categorically, a shit lord: oozing with a faux feminist sympathy as greasy and insincere as his joke of a ponytail. He’s the kind of guy who takes gender studies courses just to hit on women; a skeezy alt-bro who uses disingenuous “wokeness” as a buff for disarming sexual conquests. Cher is the first to seek Daryl out, and is treated to a diatribe on how “men [run] around trying to put their dicks into everything” but “women are in touch with different things.” Nice first wave feminism Daryl. Enlightened gender essentialism you got there. It’s barely-veiled condescension masquerading as progressive (ergo desirable) politics: “I like women, I admire them, but if you want me to treat you like a dumb twit, I will!” Daryl doesn’t do labels. Marriage is stupid. It’s “bad for the woman.” At some point, Nicholson sexually assaults a duvet cover (I shit you not), and Cher rightfully tells him that he’s not even interesting enough to make her sick, and fixes to leave.
Invoking continental philosophy’s patron douche, Daryl quotes Sartre at Cher, and reminds her she’s only getting older ‐ that she was meant to do interesting things with her life and that he could be that interesting thing. Somehow this works. Later, he pulls a similar move with Sarandon when he explains that most witches were midwives, and their persecution “just another example of male dominated professional society exploiting females for their own selfish purposes.” Before you can say “did he just forcibly separate her thighs to re-position her cello?” Sarandon and Nicholson are engaged in a hilariously heavy-handed musical euphemism for which I am 99% sure the MPAA gave Eastwick its R rating. Likewise, when it comes to Pfeiffer, Daryl celebrates her maternity (she’s a single mother of six) ‐ but given his ultimate goal of raising a satanic brood, these comments come across as nothing short of predatory.
In addition to seducing the trio, Daryl’s arrival in Eastwick infects Felicia Alden (Veronica Cartwright) with a puritanical fanaticism fitting of the film’s New England setting. While at times Felicia’s possession is upsetting, watching her bewildered husband (Cabin in the Woods’ Richard Jenkins) frantically try to reign in his wife’s manic bouts of proselytizing is hilarious. That is, until Felicia’s vitriol-spewing escalates into…well…
It’s at this point that Daryl’s spell starts to actively sour. Felicia’s death, compounded by increasingly hostile slut shaming, leads Cher and company to decide to avoid one another and Daryl until the situation cools off. This, to put it lightly, doesn’t sit well with Daryl, whose marginally pitiable abandonment quickly morphs into wounded masculinity (“You deserted me! We had a deal!”) and eventually, a violent entitlement. Any fragment of a charming facade crumbles to reveal a sweaty, selfish creature whose vanity and self-assurance expose him for the diabolical douche he is.
After tricking Daryl into thinking he’s won them back, Cher and the gang steal a grimoire in hopes of performing a spell to get rid of Daryl once and for all. Seeking refuge in a church, Daryl launches into a misogynistic sermon, disavowing his purported feminism in peak bonkers Nicholson fashion: “Do you think God knew what He was doing when He created women? So what do you think? Women…a mistake? Or did He do it to us on purpose?” Throughout Eastwick, Daryl condescendingly celebrates how natural women are, but here, with nothing to lose, he remarks that “when we make mistakes they call it evil, when God makes mistake they call it nature.” Some have criticized the cherry vomiting (which makes a triumphant reprise here) as too disgusting, but given the sexist venom Daryl is upchucking, it feels pretty damn appropriate, if not a masterful comedic undercut on Miller’s part.
Miller’s reluctance to offer concrete explanations or rules for the supernatural goings-on scanned poorly with some critics. This strikes me as odd. The magic of Eastwick is more gravitational than anything else, operating per laws of attraction rather than any clear discernible aptitude or modus operandi. In other words, magic comes naturally ‐ as intuitive as the visual narrative Miller weaves through cross cuts: in one shot cherry-gorging, in another cherry-expulsion ‐ we get what’s happened. In fact, the one actual spell Cher and friends cast (see: grimoire, voodoo doll, martinis, feathers) doesn’t quite work; with Daryl un-banished enough to hobble his way back to the mansion for an overdrawn denouement.
Eastwick’s is a hazy, effortless magic, whose exposition takes a backseat to the joyous interplay and collective power of female friendship. To ask for extrapolation is to fundamentally misunderstand Miller’s focus: a very real examination of toxic masculinity and sexual power dynamics, couched, deliciously, within occult ambiguity.