‘The Witch’ boldly chronicles itself as a “New England Folktale.” First time director Robert Eggers’ film is more of a psychological thriller than a traditional horror film. This is a slow-burning drama that creeps up on you. Moviegoers are transported back to a New England in the 1630s. Eggers’ meticulous attention to detail gives the story a haunting authenticity. The costume design, the dialogue, and the gray-black cinematography by Jarin Blaschke all come together to elicit a foreboding terror lurking through the ominous forest. For fans of indie horror films like ‘The Babadook’ and ‘It Follows,’ Eggers’ debut effort ‘The Witch’ delivers unsettling chills through atmosphere and credible performances that is a must-see.
It’s a straightforward story. A Puritan family is exiled from their insulated community due to their religious beliefs. The patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson) and his dutiful wife Katherine (Kate Dickey) haul their five children to the outskirts of a dense forest and set up a modest homestead. As they do their best to live off of the land, tragic events begin to take their toll on the family. During a game of peekaboo, their young infant son mysteriously disappears. The eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) feels guilty and receives a good deal of resentment from her mother. Thomasin is going through that awkward stage of puberty that is a theme Eggers uses as a metaphor. No matter how hard she tries, she never seems to fit in with her clan.
The tensions between her parents reach an unhealthy point of hysteria as her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) returns from the forest acting like he is possessed by an evil force. The two youngest siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) spend an inordinate amount of time with a creepy goat named Black Phillip. When they accuse their sister of witchcraft, the story escalates to a disturbing climax. Ineson and Dickey are convincing as God-fearing parents but it is the breakthrough performance by Taylor-Joy that stands out. She’s a revelation to watch as her character’s arc goes from puberty to womanhood. When she scares her younger brother and sister by pretending to be a witch, it begins to raise suspicion from her family.
Throughout the story, you’re always under the impression that something is lurking beyond the forest. Eggers uses natural lighting to his advantage. It feels like the events are taking place during colonial times. Is there something actually haunting this family or are they descending into madness from their religious fanaticism? This is a family that truly believes God and the Devil exist and when calamity strikes it continually tests their faith. The audience is constantly questioning where this evil originates. Not only does it cause paranoia and unease for the family but for us too. When you experience ‘The Witch,’ you can imagine how easily it was for the Salem Witch Trials to be possible.
Eggers never criticizes the family for their outmoded belief system. As colonists, they experience tremendous hardship. They do their best to survive on what they sow and are isolated from the rest of civilization. In a sense, the witches represent feminism. When Thomasin shows signs of strength and independence as a young woman, she is shunned by her parents. She is burdened with responsibility and prevented from growing up. The more she rebels, the more she is looked down upon by her father and mother. The forest is a forbidden place but there is something that draws her to it. Eggers deserves praise for discovering such a fresh young talent in Taylor-Joy. She’s amazing and makes ‘The Witch’ engrossing to the terrifying climax. Check out the official trailer https://youtu.be/iQXmlf3Sefg.