In the first half of the 1600s, Puritan Christians swarmed from England in search of a ‘New World’ so that they could better serve an old God. Such is the physical and psychological plane on which The Witch takes place. While the film has been marketed as horror and does contain some of the most long-standing tropes of the genre, it has much more on its mind than to frighten audiences. In fact, providing scares doesn’t seem to be of much importance at all to this mind-bogglingly authentic, stunningly atmospheric and psychologically insightful family drama. While its odd pacing and abrupt ending keep it from being a paragon of clean narrative momentum, that idiosyncratic structure helps it stand out and leave a lasting impression on the mind.
Director Robert Eggers’ first feature (though you might think it were at least his fifth) begins with the exile of William, an incredibly pious, God-fearing man even by Puritan standards, and his family from their colonial village for unknown but religiously-motivated reasons. Starting over on the fringe of the dark, wooded unknown, the family builds a small farm and lives in chilly isolation. The story centers around Williams’ put-upon eldest daughter Thomasin, who wishes only to evade eternal hellfire but finds herself caught up in more earthly matters beginning with the disappearance of her baby sister.
With no explanation for the baby’s disappearance, the family assumes this to be the work of a witch, apparently living in the forest. Of course, witchcraft was the go-to answer for many unexplainable misfortunes of the time, and the world Eggers has created here really helps to vividly depict an untamed, natural world so intimidating in its depth and grandeur that it becomes understandable how people without much knowledge of its workings, or without many means of protection from its dangers, could fall back on superstitious beliefs, so that their fears can at least take on a tangible form in their minds.
The forests are shot in such a way that they always seem to be engulfing the family, as if the trees were ready to topple on them at any moment, the shadows preparing to suck them into an endless abyss. Simultaneously expansive yet claustrophobic, The Witch’s settings are second to none, the absence of traditional monsters or ghosts made up for through a depiction of Earth itself as the greatest terror known to man. While it may not be much comfort for the family to believe that they’re being hunted by a witch, it is comfort nonetheless; at least they have a name for their fear.
Those horror movies which establish themselves as lasting contemporary examples of the genre are those that have more to them than fear itself. In 2014, Jennifer Kent’s deeply unsettling film The Babadook employed and subverted haunted house cliches as a metaphor for taboo thoughts a parent might have about their child. With last year’s It Follows, David Robert Mitchell similarly embraced and twisted well-worn horror rulesets to craft a refreshing and honest story about kids coming to terms with their sexuality. Those universal themes (be it sex, parenting, etc) serve as the meaty connective tissue which underly a familiar skeleton, granting these movies life beyond the fleeting jump scares of your common Saw or Paranormal Activity sequels which, while effective, eventually fade under the weight of diminishing returns.
The Witch lands itself in the pantheon of modern horror classics alongside Kent and Mitchell’s masterpieces by providing a story in which the dread of an unseen witch inhabiting the New England woods is secondary to the more palpable fears faced by these characters — their own capacity for sin and the idea of facing eternal damnation as a result. Though the marketing would have you think this is a movie about a family either haunted or hunted, at its core it’s about a family grappling with their own religious beliefs in the midst of a trying situation. There are many parallels to the book of Job, a text openly referenced within the film as a key to its thematic ambitions. The ambiguous and abrupt ending, when looked at through the lens of traditional horror canon, would appear unsatisfying if not for the simple, honest truths it conveys: We are the incidental authors of most of our fears and, simultaneously, we often become what we fear most.
Perhaps the biggest surprise here is just how fantastic the casting and performances are. Each character not only has a face perfectly suited to the time period and the types of characters they play, but everyone (even the very small twin children) nail both the delivery of authentic period dialogue and the subtextual paranoia of living under the constant fear of invisible forces (be it God’s wrath or Satan’s). Nobody is better at that balance than young Anya-Taylor Joy as Thomasin, whose surprising emotional transformation requires more range of facial expressions than anything else. Just as this movie will catapult Eggers to instant star status within the industry, so too should Joy become a name to watch. Meanwhile, Ralph Ineson as William has a similarly difficult juggling act to perform, serving as both an absolutely terrifying custodian of God’s strictest commandments and a soft, compassionate father figure who struggles to weigh his children’s needs against his Lord’s.
My main issue is one of pacing. Though the majority of the film is quite the slow-burn (and I have no problem with that), the quickness with which it shifts into full gear doesn’t quite gel with what came before, making the third act feel like a different (though similarly great) film – but one that is far too short. I would be okay with the sudden ending had the shift into full horror territory been smoother, but it instead comes off as if Eggers too quickly ran out of story to tell. A shame, because the story he does tell is filled with a believable pathos that elevates it above much of the genre.
The Witch is the latest movie to expose how modern horror is being bent in two opposing directions; either toward bland, marketable, jump-scare-fueled money makers or toward brilliant, ambitious but often not very scary arthouse experiences. Finding a balance between the two (something that both pleases horror purists while still being complex from a character perspective) seems to be a necessary next step in the genre. The Witch may not be for everyone. It may not be for most. But those who are willing to brave an oppressive, chilly atmosphere void of traditional frights in exchange for an immersive and thought-provoking descent into the unknown will likely find it powerful and rewarding in the strangest of ways.
Score: 4 out of 5