Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Director: Robert Eggers
Writers: Robert Eggers
In my review of The Forest I wrote about some of the problems I have with horror films these days, remarking that many of them simply content themselves with imitating their predecessors without any understanding of how the genre actually works. The Witch is a film that puts these other movies to shame. This is a film that actually understands the importance of tone and atmosphere as well as the art of subtlety. This isn’t a film that tries to catch the audience off guard with a few ‘Boo!’ moments nor is it one that is embarrassed to call itself a horror film. It tackles its subject with the utmost seriousness and devotes its time towards its characters and setting in order to create a frightening portrait of paranoia, desolation and superstition. Eggers demonstrates a strong degree of patience, skill and faith in his audience when creating this horror and I found this film to be most admirable because of it.
Set in New England in the 1630s, a Puritan family is banished from their town for the crime of “prideful conceit”. William (Ralph Ineson), the patriarch, leads his pregnant wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their four children to a site by the edge of the woods where they build their own farm. It is here that Katherine gives birth to a baby boy whom they name Samuel. One day when Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest of the children, is playing with Samuel, he vanishes during the split-second in which she loses sight of him. This happening ends up being the first in a series of horrific and damning events that befall the farm. As William struggles with his failing crops and Katherine weeps for her son it falls onto Thomasin to look after her dutiful brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and also the mischievous twins. With only their religious beliefs to guide and protect them, the family starts to believe that the terror that has befallen them is a punishment for the sins that they have committed.
Setting the film at a superstitious time when religious doctrine was law and where witchcraft was perceived as a real, unholy threat works splendidly to the film’s advantage. Even though there are clear supernatural occurrences that happen on-screen, the elements of folklore and superstition allow for enough ambiguity to cloud its nature. It is possible that this family is being tormented by a witch living deep in the woods, but they could also be the imaginings of a devout people being slowly but surely overwhelmed by the burden of guilt and immorality. One must understand that these happenings are not merely scary for this staunchly Protestant family; they are ungodly. They are unnatural events of a depraved nature that could only have been brought about by sins of profound wickedness and perversity. When Samuel disappears and is feared dead the mother and father are terrified to their core, not because their infant son might be dead but because their unbaptized child will surely be sent to hell. Once this is understood, and the film does devote time to make sure that it is understood, the paranoia and anguish they feel and also the actions that they take become clearer and more relatable.
At the centre of it all is Thomasin, a young woman living a forlorn life in a culture that suppresses, silences and subjugates women. It is not a coincidence that the root of the family’s woes, the so-called witch of the woods, belongs to a cult that is traditionally perceived as feminine. Thus this attack on what is viewed by Thomasin’s family as the natural way of life could almost be viewed as a tale of female empowerment, albeit that of an evil and unorthodox nature, seen from the eyes of a repressed and neglected girl seething with hidden insecurity and resentment. Anya Taylor-Joy shines in her breakthrough role in a film that is ripe with strong performances by its small ensemble. Ineson delivers a commendable performance as a distressed father striving to retain normalcy while Dickie is remarkable as an inconsolable mother grieving for her lost son and the dejected state of her family.
The Witch is exactly the kind of horror film that I go to the cinema hoping to see. Through atmosphere and character the film builds tension and conveys dread and despair while allowing the underlying threat to remain ambiguous and uncertain. Those who go in expecting to see a simple monster movie about a witch terrorising a colonial family will likely be disappointed because that’s not the kind of movie it’s trying to be. The Witch is more layered in its approach, more complex in its execution and more restrained in its horror. It is an engrossing film that creates a harsh and otherworldly atmosphere through its expert cinematography and builds its tension through the skilful use of editing and sound. The Witch is an example of what horror could and should be and was a chilling and mesmerising experience to watch.