You will not experience another horror movie like The Witch all year. The A24 Studios release and debut feature film from writer/director Robert Eggers cast aside all the trappings of modernity not only it the film’s period setting, but in the way it sets up its scares. There’s no jump scares, or stingers or sense of irony. What exists on the screen is a slowly dawning sense of terror as a family is torn apart by their physical surroundings as well as a spiritual threat that looms over them, unseen and undetected until it’s far too late. The result is a masterpiece of horror cinema that is bound to be discussed, studied and dissected for years to come.
The Witch takes place in 1630’s Massachusetts, and begins with a Puritan family finding themselves exiled from the community after the family patriarch William (Ralph Inenson) condemns the town elders one time to many for being blasphemous worshippers of false idols. With the gates of the plantation literally closed behind them, William moves his wife Katherine (Katie Dickie), and his children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy and Jonas to an untouched parcel of land. Sitting on the edge of the woods and by a stream, William believes he has found the perfect spot to practice their austere form of worship while having everything they need at their disposal for food and shelter.
Fast forward a year later and the family has welcomed baby Sam into the world while settling in and raising crops. The family’s brief moment of tranquility is shattered when the infant is snatched from them. After a week, they give up hope of finding the baby, chalking up their loss to a predator wolf in the area. The loss of their child sparks a series of tragic events that pull apart the familial bonds and test each member’s faith in different ways. The disappearance also shines a spotlight on William’s sin of pride and his foolishness in his confidence that he alone could provide all that his family need to survive. William lacks the skills to hunt or trap game, and his harvest yields meager results, leaving the brood on the brink of starvation with winter approaching rapidly.
One of the great strengths of The Witch is Eggers ability to make the Devil a tangible threat. Eggers did a great deal of painstaking research combing through journals and court documents of the time period and used his findings to craft the dialogue of the film while also getting inside the mindset of what people believed. For the Puritans, the Devil was not a metaphorical symbol of evil but a threat every bit as real as the physical world that surrounded them. These were people that believed in and feared witches left their bodies behind in the middle of the night so that their spirits could dance around the fire and do Satan’s bidding. The film buys into these beliefs and rather than lend itself to modern sensibilities that the witch hunt of Salem was due to bored and hysterical teen girls and town folk looking to get back at neighbors that had wronged them, he presents his witch as a true and tangible being. Sam’s abduction has a chilling purpose, and in a beautifully edited sequence, we learn what the family does not: that there’s a very real and evil danger lurking in the woods, determined to take down the clan one at at time.
That attention to detail carries over to the look of the film, where Eggers’ background in art and production design is clearly evident in every frame. This detail transcends the meticulous set and costume design. The Witch looks like it has been naturally lit, and there’s a sense that the abundance of negative space hides unseen terrors just out of the view of the family. The film does a wonderful job of giving the audience the feeling that there’s so much more to this world than what the naked eye can see, and it adds a creeping sense of terror that never leaves once it manages to seep in.
The performances in The Witch are wonder across the board. Dickie takes a character that would come off as shrewish and borderline evil in lesser hands and lends her a real depth of humanity. It’s her grief that informs her rationalizations and conclusions. Not only the grief of losing her children but also at the loss of community in not one but two places. One gets the sense that none of the family buys in to William’s overwrought sense of piousness but Katherine has followed him to the edge of civilization out of a sense of real love for him. Now that love has cost her the things she cherishes most, and she lashes out accusingly at the parties she holds responsible. William recognizes his folly too late, and the patriarchal notion that father knows best, even when it means lying to your spouse or cajoling your children to lie blows up in his face. At the outset of the film William proclaims “We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us.” This masculine idea of conquering nature, of making it submit and bend to man’s will is laughable by the end, and Inenson does a phenomenal job of showing how his character comes to that understanding through the wearied look on his face.
However the real strength comes from the child performances. The two young twins Mercy and Jonas are alternately highly comedic terrifying. The period accurate clothing gives them the appearance of being squashed, tiny adults and it’s never not disturbing to see them in that light. The two seem to know more than they should about the dark arts, claim that they converse with the family ram Black Philip and succumb to the witchly hysteria quickly while pointing fingers at Thomansin. Caleb is on the cusp of puberty, and his close relationship with his elder sister does him no favors as he casts furtive looks at her before turning away in shame. The death of his unbaptized brother consumes him with fear for the child’s soul as well as his own, and his panic isn’t quelled by his father’s insistence that only God knows who is evil and who is saved. Scrimshaw has a pair of powerhouse scenes in the film, including a sickbed scene that is absolutely bone chilling.
It’s newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy that delivers a performance which would be criminal to overlook when awards season comes around. Given that accusations of witchcraft have a historical explanation of men’s fear of women’s sexuality, it’s no coincidence that that family troubles begin when Thomansin sits at the edge of womanhood. Taylor-Joy gives a brilliant understanding of all the conflicting emotions that brings. From resentment at having to watch the two bratty twins, to guilt over her role in Sam’s disappearance, to wanting nothing more to please a mother that seems to despise her more with each day to wanting to strike out on her own away from the isolated family, all of these conflicts roil and bubble over. Taylor-Joy portrays Thomansin in a way that shows that she understands how trapped she is and how events are conspiring against her. Thomansin is an emotionally intelligent and complex young woman.
The Witch offers up the kind of horror that modern fans are not used to seeing anymore. It’ could be the best depiction of the horrors of isolation since The Shining.More than that, Robert Eggers is able to capture the essence of what made pre-Grimm fairy tales and folklore so dark and compelling.