Written and directed by Robert Eggers, “The Witch” is A New England Folktale set roughly in the 1630’s that follows the story of a family cast out from society in the new American colonies for being accused of “prideful conceit”. While we never get the exact details about what William (Ralph Ineson) and his family engaged in to receive a sentence as damning as banishment, that isn’t what the story is truly about anyways. We can surmise that William probably took his own interpretation of the bible to be more accurate than those of the colony. As he claims in the opening scene that he practiced only “the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels”. Thus the film begins as the family of seven treks out into the wilderness, firm in their decisions, unknowing of their doom to come.
The family consists of Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) the eldest son- though he’s only about twelve, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) the young twins that earn the title of creepiest kids in the film, and Thomasin the eldest daughter, a few years older than Caleb and easily the standout performance of the film- though all are great. Katherine (Kate Dickie) the Mother, who unravels psychologically and spiritually as the film progresses, is at a complete loss once the youngest child, Samuel the baby, is mysteriously abducted near the beginning of the film. It’s always a gamble with child actors, but this may be the best use of little performers since “Jurassic Park” (I’m not dying on that hill- I just rewatched the classic recently and it’s been rambling about in my headspace since). They’re all poise perfect in their period-accurate performances. Thomasin in particular is a fascinating role, as the family crumbles from within Witch accusations are aimed at her, and there is a bit of sly wit hidden subtly in her performance that makes you ask, Wait… is she actually the Witch? The paranoia of the family is infectious to say the least. Though Caleb makes an argument for the best, and most chilling, scene in the whole film- it certainly got to me in the moment.
See, the beautiful trick of the film is that while the title may indicate that the film is about “The Witch”, and there is indeed some supernatural underpinnings trifling about, it’s more about the effect that the Witch has on this family. They are torn apart as much by their superstitions and fears of damnation as they are of the titular creature’s actions. In fact it is this weaving of the supernatural with the sense of hard realism that makes the film stand out from it’s genre limitations to become something more than the sum of its parts. On a technical level, the film pays homage in cinematography and framing to old religious renaissance paintings, particularly of Goya’s work on the subject of Witches (Even though he lived a century later in Spain). The score is also worth mentioning as it fuels the sense of a tense and bellowing doom. Booming orchestral vocals against a moonlit forest paint the mood for the film, danger lies at the edge of the woods, damnation is afoot, and trust is cast aside.
Old religious imagery sprinkled in throughout the film with the age appropriate attitudes of the family combine to heighten the dread that would be nearly impossible within a modern setting. We don’t take everything in life as a seriously as those before us had. After giving this film a watch I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, so I read up on what countless others had to say on the matter. There was something particularly unnerving about the film that I just couldn’t articulate efficiently, Was it the acting? The setting? Or simply the unabashed originality behind it? Then I gave the New Yorker’s review of the film a read and Anthony Lane perfectly exemplified what I was missing, “This is, to put it mildly, an uncommon state of affairs for anyone who frequents the cinema, the theatre, or the opera house. How many people, these days, heading out of ‘Don Giovanni,’ are honestly shaken by the mortal terror of the hero, in his final conflagration? Which of us treats ‘The Crucible,’ set sixty years or so after the events of ‘The Witch,’ as anything but a reflection on the political hysteria of the time in which it was written? The problem is simple: we can’t be damned. One gradual effect of the Enlightenment was to tamp down the fires of Hell and sweep away the ashes, allowing us to bask in the rational coolness that ensued. But the loss—to the dramatic imagination, at any rate—has been immense. If your characters are convinced that a single action, a word out of place, or even a stray thought brings not bodily risk but an eternity of pain, your story will be charged with illimitable dread. No thriller, however tense, can promise half as much.” The historical context and how accurately the characters were represented in their actions and fears gave the film an unshakable authenticity- we believe that the characters believe with a steadfast resoluteness. There are no jokes or irony in their performance, no release once the film has you in it’s grasp.
“The Witch” is a fascinating and unconventional horror film that preys upon our past to craft a finely tuned and chilling film. I definitely recommend it if you’re into unique offerings in this genre- though it is slow at times and will definitely not be for everyone (It wholeheartedly earns its ‘R’ rating). I wouldn’t recommend it to new parents- unless they enjoy fresh nightmare scenarios they hadn’t yet considered to keep them awake at night. It’s out on streaming services and physical media at this point, give it a watch if you can- it’s definitely a standout of the genre in my opinion.
Final Score: 1 Black Phillip & 1 damned family