Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Director: Robert Eggers
Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Robert Eggers' auspicious debut feature The Witch (or if one is inclined to use the proper 17th Century pronunciation, The VVitch), is a horror movie only insofar as the idea of religious puritanism and the sight of a demonic Trojan Goat is the stuff of nightmares. It's aims, like The Babadook and It Follows, two similarly hyped festival indie darlings, are more metaphorical than jump-scare literal, though there's plenty of dread-induced atmosphere and creepy imagery on display here. To say that The Witch isn't really scary in the traditional sense is missing the point. Eggers wants us to become immersed in the displaced time period (in this case, mid-1600s New England), the bleak-grey skies, the rotting corn fields, the flickering candle-lit interiors, the foreboding sway of the wind rustling through the forest. Actually, his film owes more of a debt to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman than anything in the horror genre, and as such, will likely baffle audiences expecting cheap genre shocks. Not that the film steers clear of genre, mind you. Honestly, things could have gone even further into gonzo territory, and the movie's weaknesses stem mainly from the fact that it sticks almost too closely within it's limited setting and genre tropes.
Still, as a treatise on religious fanaticism and female autonomy, The Witch is both troubling and thought-provoking. With the Salem Witch trails occurring a few decades later, Eggers cannily exploits our knowledge of history by suggesting that the close-minded spirituality of the early settlers was a terrible evil and that making a pact with the Devil himself may be a preferable life choice. The notion of female agency is also brought to bare here, drawing a modern day comparison to the way many religious entities still believe that a woman's place is to be silent and serve the patriarch; whether that be God or an actual flesh and blood male. If all this sounds obtuse and pretentious; well, there's certainly an air of formal self-satisfaction about The Witch, but Eggers' directorial technique, along with stunning period details and uniformly strong acting often makes you forget just how laughably self-serious it all is. Is there room for a bit of wry humor amidst all the hysterical prayers, wood chopping, corn husking, and Puritan-era witchcraft? Well, a possibly possessed goat named Black Philip is somewhat funny, in that he stares at pilgrims blankly before ramming their stomachs with his horns.
The barebones story involves a family banished from Pilgrim society for inscrutable religious reasons, forced to set up a home for themselves in the middle of nowhere. There's the staunch William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and a creepy set of twins, all Scripture-thumping believers whose world is turned upside down once an infant boy mysteriously vanishes. Eggers allows us to be one step ahead of the characters in terms of what is happening, but only up to a point. Favoring an atmospheric soundtrack full of gothic chanting and discordant swells, long-head shots of the ominous forest trees, and naturalistic period-appropriate dialect, The Witch definitely falls in the "slow-build" camp of cerebral horror, but when it needs to ratchet up the tension, it does so effectively. What keeps the film from becoming too much of an aesthetic exercise is that the dread is kept close to home; meaning, the effect the missing child has on the character's emotional and psychological state are of paramount importance. Without God directly answering their anguished prayers, the family is forced to come up with extreme conclusions based on superstitious readings of Scripture and the fear of spiritual damnation, and this is where the real horror lies. Though there are literal witches and sinister forces at work, Eggers teases that information out sparingly, trusting the audience will be more disturbed by the family's unraveling belief system than any manner of spooky imagery.
Another reason The Witch works so well is due to Taylor-Joy's performance as the blossoming teen Thomasin; the folk tale's central figure and the one for whom youthful femininity and burgeoning sexuality has long been held as the impetus for aligning with the Devil. The way she toggles between piety, self-preservation, stubbornness, fear, and in the film's show-stopping final scene, orgasmic joy, is something to behold. In a shrewd directorial move, her face is often positioned directly in the center of the frame as she reacts to the strange happenings around her, which creates a situation where we begin studying the external signals of internal fears. Generally, this is a decision Eggers settles for as a general rule; composing scenes in which his camera refuses to show us the thing we desperately want to see, or framing shots just askew enough for us to lean forward, hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.
The Witch ultimately boils down to the unshackling of closed-minded religious ideals. Thomasin is on the cusp of womanhood, and as such, must make a choice of whether to retain her childhood-instilled beliefs or forge a new path for herself. Her choice, given the options, is really what Eggers has been up to all along, which may confuse those hoping the film would devolve into more standard splatter-horror fare. On the other hand, it's slightly disappointing that the film doesn't take the conceit even further into the realm of unhinged insanity, ala Rob Zombie's similarly mood-based The Lords of Salem; a film which abandons audience expectations altogether and hits ecstatic heights of Ken Russell-inspired lunacy. Still, the subtle shifts between art-house mood and more accessible beats means that it could very well be the rare horror indie with mainstream cross-over appeal. If anything, it will likely make modern-day farmers (if that even exists anymore) think twice about owning a goat.