Director: Robert Eggers
Producers: Rodrigo Teixeira, Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen
Writer: Robert Eggers
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
It’s no secret among us that we have overrun the wilderness. We daily see evidence of dead and shattered trees in oak floors, notebooks, telephone poles. Neat, trimmed fine fescue covers centuries-trodden dirt, errant stones, irregularities and bumps. Forestry dwindles. Perhaps the most immediate shock the modern viewer experiences, watching THE WITCH, is the view of what the wilderness once was—and what our encroachment once looked like. Primitive, brutal, and grim, THE WITCH is a startling depiction of man and family, against the primeval setting of the forest as it once was.
“Unnatural,” ironically, is the word that Katherine (Kate Dickie) is compelled to utter, describing the trials of her family. It is New England in the early seventeenth century. Katherine, her husband William (Ralph Ineson), and their five children have been banished from the colonial plantation in light of disagreements over religious practices. They now live on an isolated outcropping, near the edge of the forest, expansive and dark, where they are constantly engaged in hard, back-breaking labor in order to carve out a living. From there, things take a turn for the worse. Their harvest is insufficient to feed them through the winter. William is forced to sell a precious family heirloom, a silver chalice, for hunting equipment. Worst of all, the youngest, Samuel, an infant, is snatched from Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest, in the blink of an eye—literally.
It is not revealed what the Puritans’ disagreements with the family were, but we can assume that they must have been minor, because the family is nothing if not pious, surely to the liking of a Puritan mindset. One of the opening scenes is a long take of Thomasin, kneeled, in the throes of confession. Her sins are laughably insignificant; she begs forgiveness for playing in secret on the Sabbath and sinning “in mind.” And yet, in spite of the family’s dedication to the Lord—or, perhaps, in mere indifference to it—they suffer.
Thomasin is on the edge of adolescence, developing breasts which strain at her bodice (and that her younger brother, Caleb [Harvey Scrimshaw], peeks at curiously, almost fearfully). She, of course, is the object of suspicion following Samuel’s disappearance, having been last seen with him, and no amount of tearful explanations can allay her mother’s hatred toward her. Thomasin’s other younger siblings, twins Jonas and Mercy, ironically, appear the most devilish—in shrill voices, they shriek and chant, racing around the settlement, more than often after the goat, Black Phillip, sometimes, eerily, even speaking for him. Still, the fear and disgust that is directed at Thomasin in light of her physical development into a woman and that directed at her in light of her connection to Samuel’s disappearance—and, later, further disappearances—comingle and, before long, Thomasin finds herself the singular target of loathing, a young girl without a single ally to be found.
THE WITCH is a straightforward portrayal of fear and misogyny, borne of Biblical tales of succubi and feminine wiles, which where inherent in the hysteria over witches in New England prior to the Trials in the late seventeenth century. In fact, it’s a straightforward portrayal overall, which is unsurprising, given that Robert Eggers based the screenplay on historical accounts of the time period. The actors speak strictly in dialect (warning: they are extremely difficult to understand, so think twice before seeing THE WITCH in theaters) and are costumed with meticulous attention to detail. However, here lies my chief complaint: THE WITCH is, if possible, too straightforward.
Haven’t I seen this before? Shrieking accusations and pointed fingers, frantic prayers over the mysteriously ill…oh, yeah: this was all in THE CRUICIBLE (1996). Obviously, in horror—as in any genre—certain stories are told and retold, and part of the fun is seeing each writer’s take on an old tale. I’ve seen a half a dozen witch movies, all with consistently repeated themes and motifs. And yet, each one had a twist. I don’t have to tell you how THE CRAFT (1996) is different from LORDS OF SALEM (2012). This twist of creativity is what THE WITCH lacked.
That said, THE WITCH is a gorgeous pic. The cinematography is masterful, the 1:66 aspect ratio an artistic triumph. I was positively floored by Jarin Blaschke’s penchant for distilling a single frame with dread, with not a note of the score (chilling and beautiful as it is) played nor a hint of dialogue spoken; something as simple as a fallen tree setting the heart pounding. Particularly successful were the close-ups and medium close-ups of Thomasin, which displayed Anya Taylor-Joy’s impressive acting range vividly. Taylor-Joy, though relatively unknown, steals the show with her depiction of Thomasin, imbuing her with all of the mischief, joy, and grief of teenagers then and now.
If THE WITCH falls a bit flat, it arguably redeems itself with Taylor-Joy, as well as an admirable respect of the history of the time, a setting rich with despair itself, and a witch terrifying enough to rival Rob Zombie’s creations in LORDS OF SALEM. Watch THE WITCH because you have an appreciation for the fascinations of the era and for a visually striking art film and portrayal of the classic man vs. nature battle that never ceases to be relevant. If the repeated scenes of William chopping wood furiously don’t spell out the antagonism between the colonists and the wilderness they are forced to coexist with, then the fate of Samuel surely will.
There is little, but it is… *shudder*
The horror is minimal, what what horror there is will not leave your imagination any time soon.
Plenty of it.
THE WITCH isn’t a “scary movie.” It’s eerie…tense…grim…but not “scary.” However, there was at least one moment in the film that was wonderfully terrifying.
Underwhelming, a little slow…but worth seeing and certainly skillfully made.
THE WITCH is in theaters now, wide release. The film will be released on demand and on DVD on May 17. You can preorder it at Barnes & Noble today.