Billed as a New England folk tale, Robert Eggers’ rather brilliant directorial debut ‘The Witch’ mixes the paranoid reality of the Salem witch trials with the folklore that fuelled the panic until the true nature of the film’s reality begins to blur.
‘The Witch’ is a horror movie that thus far has been booked in dramatic programs of film festivals rather than the genre sections, and it certainly deserves that broader audience even if it’s destined to play primarily to horror aficionados.
The film follows a family banished from their small plantation town in 1630. They take up residence at the edge of a dense wood in a rickety home and barn that already feel cursed before any of the supernatural shenanigans begin. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the closest thing to a protagonist as the eldest daughter of the family. An innocent game of peek-a-boo leads to her infant sibling getting kidnapped. Her father (Ralph Ineson) claims the child was dragged off by wolves, but the audience sees a witch and all the elements of a gruesome sacrifice.
From there, the family slowly splinters apart in fits of paranoia. The father and his wife (Katie Dickie) bicker about the family being forsaken by god. The eldest brother (Harvey Scrimshaw) exhibits uncomfortable pubescent desires towards his sister as well as his first pains of religious angst. Meanwhile, the twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) creepily keep to themselves, often speaking with the family goat (who delivers one of the finest performances in a film filled with them). Soon, accusations of witchcraft are tossed around, as was the way of the day.
The family dynamics become harsh and tense, while the supernatural leanings of the film slowly creep up and pay off in ways difficult to watch. It’s hard to say whether the character interactions or the overt horror of the film is more disturbing, especially since Eggers so deftly blurs the two together until it’s difficult to determine where the line of reality ends, if at all. He wrote the film in stylized period dialogue, which adds to the discomfort. The cast all work their way through the formal speech impressively, never stretching too far into the theatricality of the dialogue. Everything feels pained and real for the remarkable cast, especially from Taylor-Joy’s tortured heroine, Ineson’s endlessly emasculated patriarch, and Dickie’s deranged mother figure.
Carefully paced and expertly shot with an eye for period and atmospheric detail, ‘The Witch’ is a movie that entrances viewers with its horrors. The tale unfolds with the tone and perverse logic of a nightmare, so that even quiet and innocent moments come with a feeling of dread. For a first time filmmaker, Eggers mixes all the elements of his creepy cocktail with impressive expertise. His film is calculated in the best possible sense, designed to unnerve from Frame 1 while still challenging viewers rather that lulling them into a passive thrill ride. It’s a horror movie that can be taken seriously by those already seduced by the genre as well as viewers who wouldn’t typically step near a horror movie. Hopefully both audiences will find ‘The Witch’. Yet even if the movie is destined only for a prescribed audience, those viewers will delight in how seriously and effectively the director treats the genre.