Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Harvey Scrimshaw.
Everyone should see The Witch.
Okay. That’s a hyperbolic opening sentence which neither takes into account differences of tastes and sensibilities nor describes what makes The Witch a compelling, thought provoking viewing experience vastly different from most other films. Of course not everyone should see The Witch, but anyone who appreciates thoughtful, challenging works of art which wrestle with faith based questions should give this film a chance.
The Witch is a powerful work of art about faith gone badly wrong and the horrific consequences thereof. While those consequences unquestionably make The Witch a horror film, it’s hardly one I would call scary. Rather, the creepy and unnerving atmosphere, achieved through a perfect blend of fantasy and tragedy, gives the themes of religion, fundamentalism, and destruction of the family a fresh vitality. In other words, both horror aficionados and those who rigidly eschew horror films should throw out any expectations and allow The Witch to unfold in its unusual and spectacular manner.
The story itself is fairly simple: a Puritan family is exiled from their colonial village because the father has been challenging the ways of the towns’ elders, whom he claims are heretics. After they set up their farm on the outskirts of the woods, the infant disappears one day while the oldest is playing peek-a-boo with him. Not long after that, increasingly unusual events begin to plague the family, creating rifts between all the relationships: siblings, spouses, and parents and children.
With its masterful recreation of superstitious, seventeenth century, colonial New England, The Witch transports its audience to an era long since passed where characters behave in ways that make little sense by modern standards. Regrettably, several screenings have had a few audience members’ laughing in shock because they are unable to accept the perspective of characters whose mentality is completely foreign to twenty-first century America. However, the unapologetic immersion in seventeenth century Puritan New England by writer/director Robert Eggers is what makes The Witch so thoroughly engrossing.
Eggers’ script is full of archaic language which would be right at home in a Shakespeare play, and his dialogue frequently focuses on sin and the fear that one might die in sin and thus go to hell. That fear naturally applies to children and infants, and it is a pressing concern for the family, especially young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who cannot comprehend what his baby brother did to deserve to go to hell. While his father (Ralph Ineson) acknowledges God’s mercy as a possibility, the strict sect of Puritanism to which the family adheres places an extreme focus on sin and damnation, almost to the point that sin is greater than God’s mercy, a warped perspective which will feature prominently later in the film.
At the center of the story is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the verge of becoming a woman, suffering from guilt for losing her infant brother while she was playing peek-a-boo, her mother’s scapegoat for anything that goes wrong on the farm, and increasingly uncertain about the rigid fundamentalism of her faith. The opening shot of her silently staring wide-eyed into the camera portrays a young girl who sees her family’s future jeopardized as her father is banished from the village community. That young girl gradually becomes more assertive through the course of the film, but since her family and religion both devalue her, her journey to adulthood hardly follows a normal trajectory. The two other scenes when she stares directly into the camera frame her mental and spiritual journey. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the film unnervingly captures a very troubled and lonely soul.
Overshadowing Thomasin’s coming of age and the family grief is the omnipresent threat of a witch in the woods that border the farm. It goes without saying that Thomasin and her family believe in witchcraft, and a very early scene shows the audience the witch. However, the overarching question is whether or not the witch is really a threat or if there is another demonic presence haunting this family. The answers are skillfully suggested throughout, particularly in an early tracking shot which distorts its subject in a brilliant fashion. The final answer will seem perfectly natural to viewers who have bought into the characters and world on display. For those who haven’t, the denouement will probably be the biggest head scratcher in the film. Either way, it pays off in spades.
As a director, Eggers brilliantly chooses what to show and what not to show. He times the cuts to leave just enough room for doubt so that the tragic, fantastic atmosphere is greatly heightened. He places Mark Korven’s visceral, textural score against Jarin Blaschke’s bleak cinematography so that the world of the film is immersive. Finally, his Bergmanesque wrestling with faith, doubt, and isolation suggests a cross between Winter Light and Hour of the Wolf.
It’s very rare to see a film that demands to be seen multiple times to fully digest it. With The Witch, first time feature film director Robert Eggers has crafted such a film.
Content Advisory: Fleeting depictions of disturbing satanic rituals, some gruesome violence, shadowy nudity, and horrific unusual deaths. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Adults with discernment
Personal Recommendation: A