Film Review – The Witch
Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) is the kind of horror film that isn’t interested in cheap thrills. Rather, the terror it evokes digs into your bones, unsettling you with tone and atmosphere. Eggers makes his feature length debut as writer and director, and in both he showcases the ability of a seasoned veteran. This is great filmmaking, a methodical tale of witchcraft and black magic wrapped around a family breaking apart at the seams. I found myself disturbed and fascinated in equal measure. The real effect happens after you leave the theater, where the imagery sticks in your mind and the ideas simmer within the imagination.
An opening title screen describes it as a “folk tale.” The setting is 1630s New England, a time where superstition and devout religious faith held a firm grip on the populace. A few decades later would come the infamous Salem Witch Trials, a real life incident where a number of people were executed, suspected of being members of an occult. That may be the true horror, the knowledge that cases where fear overtook reason actually did occur. Eggers did his homework, studying reports taken during trials and investigations. Much of the dialogue (written in the Old English vernacular – lots of “thou’s” and “thee’s”) is from recorded testimony. Knowing that heightens the film’s impression.
We meet a family of seven: William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five kids including daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). Under mysterious circumstances the family is cast out of their puritan commonwealth, settling on a makeshift farm a stone’s throw away from a dark forest. Almost immediately after arriving, strange events begin to occur. Their corn stock refuses to flourish, animals start behaving strangely, and all the while the forest appears to loom closer and closer to them. This all comes to a head when one of the children suddenly disappears without a trace.
And that’s all of the plot I’ll describe. The rest should be left to your discovery, because the revelations and character developments help the film work as effectively as it does. Malevolence is injected into the family, and then we sit back and watch as their bond deteriorates into madness. This is amplified with stunning accomplishment in the visuals, sound, and performances. Mark Korven’s music is an eerie mixture of tones and building cadences. Often, the music will accompany a shot of the surrounding environment (usually the forest) rising in pace and volume and then smashing into silence. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is dank and brooding. Life during this time was a harsh one, especially during the autumn and winter seasons. The cool grays and browns highlight the unforgiving living conditions. Splashes of color come mostly in red, the implications I’m sure you can deduce.
Many of the actors do not have mainstream name recognition, and I mean that as a compliment. This allows them to fill their roles believably – we see them as the characters instead of the actors. The acting all around is fantastic. Ralph Ineson, with his deep and gravely voice, projects the patriarch as a man of authority, but also of self-doubt. As evil encircles his family, William sees his control slip out of his fingers despite his best efforts. Kate Dickie does a variation of her character from Game of Thrones, a woman so committed to her faith that any challenge she encounters is responded with obsessive mistrust. Katherine is so consumed with religious panic that logic never enters her equation.
Harvey Scrimshaw and Anya Taylor-Joy are the two standouts, playing the eldest siblings. They’re required to portray a wide range of emotions, from the playfulness of youth to the despair of being victims of supernatural forces. This is not easy, and Scrimshaw and Taylor-Joy are asked to do some pretty outlandish things, but their performances are committed to the material. Not once do they fall into camp or mannerism, everything they do appears natural and within context. I would not be surprised if both were destined for successful careers as adults.
There are some reviews that have compared The Witch to Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960). I find that to be a surface level assessment. Where Bergman’s masterpiece investigates the nature of faith, morality, and revenge, Egger’s film veers towards family dynamics placed under extreme duress. As secrets and betrayals come out, the family’s loyalty to one another are tested. We can push this into a broader allegory, where the family represents greater society and how paranoia can victimize innocents, especially women. If anything, the more apt comparison would be with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
We should make one thing clear: the “witch” of the title is real here. There is no mystery, Eggers leaves little question about the witch’s existence. This may be the only misstep of the narrative. Because there is no ambiguity regarding the witch, we are immediately exposed to two contrasting themes: the threat of the witch against the family and the resulting family structure falling apart. Would it have been a more jarring experience if we were never made sure of the witch’s presence? Would that have lent to the broader allegory of suspicion within the family? Eggers appears to be interested in both. The lack of uncertainty takes a bit of the mystique away, and the closing sequence suffers because of that. I can see some viewers chuckling in the final moments instead of being scared.
But make no mistake; this is a truly terrifying ordeal. Eggers and his team display adept craftsmanship, allowing us to feel the horror these people went through, and the effect is lasting. There are sequences that chilled me to the core – an early scene is shocking beyond measure, details of which I dare not mention. Yet it’s executed with such artistry that we can’t deny the skill that went into it. Where bad horror movies settle for lazy tricks and easy outs, the ambition of The Witch is in a class rarely visited.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with writer/director Robert Eggers.