A Review of Robert Eggers’s The Witch: A Dark and Unnerving New England Folktale

witch

Film: The Witch
Director: Robert Eggers
Primary Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
US Release Date: 19 February 2016

In 1630s New England, a devout puritan named William (Ineson) stands before his community. For religious reasons, he is swiftly banished from their plantation, and by the film’s second scene, he and his family are shown relocating to a cold piece of wilderness on the edge of the woods.

William’s family consists of his wife Katherine (Dickie), their oldest daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), their oldest son Caleb (Scrimshaw), young twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson), and an infant named Samuel. The family struggle to get by on their own away from the plantation, and it soon becomes apparent that they may not have enough food to survive the winter.

One day, Thomasin sets Samuel on the ground so that she can play peekaboo with him. After successfully surprising the baby a number of times, Thomasin looks down to find that he has disappeared entirely. Though William quickly concludes that a wolf must have taken Samuel, the twins claim that a witch who lives is responsible. Regardless of the truth, Katherine clearly blames Thomasin for the loss of her son, and she is utterly destroyed by his disappearance.

The more her mother grieves, the more responsibilities Thomasin is forced to take on. As a girl and as her parent’s oldest child, she is effectively asked to take care of her siblings, all of the farm’s animals, and the household chores (including the washing of her father’s clothes) all at once. To make things worse, her mother’s most prized possession (a silver cup) soon goes missing, which causes Katherine to resent Thomasin even more. At the same time, Mercy and Jonas soon accuse Thomasin of being the very witch who they believe stole their baby brother.

Over the rest of Robert Eggers’s “New England folktale,” Thomasin and her family gradually sink into a hell characterized by grief, religious fears, anxiety, paranoia, and dread. And even as the entire family is tested by the evil both within and all around them, William, Katherine, Caleb, Jonas, and Mercy all continue to mistreat Thomasin in their own ways.

It may not be the scare-filled horror movie sold by its trailers, but The Witch is a mesmerizing and unforgettable piece of cinema all the same. This provocative and unsettling film is a dark period drama, an atmospheric psychological thriller, and a haunting fable all at once, and with it, Eggers makes it clear that he takes his craft seriously and that he is more than capable of presenting a fully realized vision that will leave its mark on viewers for years to come. Though it’s Eggers’s first film, there is nothing timid about The Witch; in fact, it’s one of the most exciting and distinct directorial debuts that I’ve seen in some time. The film may not be perfect, but certain aspects of it are so good, that little else matters, and I am extremely eager to see what Eggers does next.

When accepted for what it is, The Witch excels, but a number of viewers may find the film disappointing, because it is not the over-hyped work of horror that they expected. Simply put, the film advertised in trailers is not the film The Witch really is. This is not to say that The Witch is without horrific moments, but it does exist somewhere just beyond the more typical confines of the horror genre.

Moreover, whatever The Witch lacks in sheer shock value and jump scares, it more than makes up for with its well-crafted and unnerving tale of a girl on the cusp of womanhood and of a family doomed. The Witch won’t have viewers covering their eyes in their seats, but it will chill them to bone while giving them plenty to think about on the way home.

Despite its unexplained and supernatural elements, there is something remarkably authentic about The Witch, which allows it to transport viewers rather forcefully. Much of this authenticity takes root in Eggers’s layered and intelligent script, which takes a considerable portion of its dialogue straight from historical documents. The film’s aura of authenticity—and indeed of intimate reality—also stems from its sets and costumes, neither of which are overdone or take on the ostentatious quality so often found in period cinema. A great deal of attention to detail and restraint both went into the making of The Witch, which allows it to feel almost historical even as fantastic evil takes over. At the same time, The Witch’s firmly anchored place in the past also greatly enhances its ability to blur the lines between the real and the imagined, which certainly increases its capacity to disturb those who see it.

Along with its engrossing story and its almost alarming sense of impossible historical authenticity, The Witch also provides viewers with a series of beautiful (and beautifully nightmarish) images. The film is staged and shot in a captivating and striking manner that draws viewers ever deeper into its world. Eggers’s use of cold, neutral, and muted colors is also effective, as it contributes to the chilling, eerie, hostile, and even forlorn atmosphere of the entire film. (For what it’s worth, that same atmosphere is also established—and greatly intensified by—the film’s nerve-grating score.)

The Witch also draws much of its strength from its solid performances. As William and Katherine, Ineson and Dickie are both perfect for their roles, and neither of them looks like someone who could exist anywhere but in the past of the film. Ineson’s gravelly voice and considerable size make him a rather intimidating figure, and there is a gravely serious air about his every breath and movement. Dickie’s gaunt, angular face certainly goes a long way, but she also does an incredible job of conveying extreme levels of bitterness, resentment, and grief.

As good as the more experienced Ineson and Dickie are, it’s the young (and rather beautiful) Anya Taylor-Joy who truly carries the film. Because she is a girl (as well as a child in a strict puritan household), there is a great deal that Thomasin cannot say or express, but Taylor-Joy’s performance allows viewers to see past her words. Thomasin may not always defy her parents or speak her pain, but viewers can understand her struggles and how out-of-place she feels all the same. There is something gentle and understated in Taylor-Joy’s work, but it’s just what the film calls for, and it’s crucial to its overall success.

The Witch isn’t a pure horror film, and it doesn’t provide viewers with an onslaught of grotesque images or explicit violence. However, it is an impressive work of cinema, and it is most definitely worth seeing. This disturbing and multi-faceted film immerses viewers in its dark and terrible world and tells them a tale of family that is driven—by various anxieties—to tear itself apart. Though (appropriately) claustrophobic, The Witch presents themes and concerns that reach far beyond the family and the time that it depicts, and it contains complex characters who interact in interesting and well-developed ways. This slow-burning film also indicates a great deal of confidence on behalf of its director, who clearly has a knack for filling audiences with a deep-seated sense of dread. Whether such dread comes from fear of women, religious beliefs, or the untamed North American wilderness, there is not a single scene in The Witch that isn’t touched by it, and the result is a film that gets under the skin of its viewers and that succeeds on multiple levels.

It’s pacing might not be perfect and some may feel that the ending does not quite fit what comes before it, but the more I think about The Witch, the more I want to see it again. I am also itching to delve into the many layers and themes contained within its script—particularly those pertaining to gender and Thomasin’s development and treatment as a woman. To do so would mean spoilers, which are something I try to keep out of my reviews, but I may write up another post on the film sometime in the near future.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading! My new work schedule means no free weekends and very few free evenings, so getting to the theater may become more difficult. I won’t let that stop me from watching and writing about movies, but my current posting rhythm will probably change just a bit.

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