A family of five, living in 1630’s New England, builds a home outside of a haunted forest, where a horrible witch lives…or does she?
“The Witch” displays the kind of directorial confidence and control you rarely see in a first time filmmaker. Writer/director Robert Eggers stages each shot with total precision and uses shadows to nightmarish effect. “The Witch” is totally out of step with the jump-scare franchise horror films of late, as Eggers has effectively recreated the look and mindset of a 1630 household with loving and thoughtful attention to detail.
The performances are excellent by the entire cast. Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, the oldest of the children, is the clear standout, as her journey becomes the narrative’s center and core of the film’s themes, but Ralph Ineson as her on-edge father and Kate Dickie as Thomasin’s vulnerable mother are equally superb. Even the performances by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as the outspoken (and possibly sinister) twins are first rate, both for actors that young and for a film such as this. This will sound like snarky rhetoric but the goat they found to characterize the memorable Black Phillip couldn’t have been better. Yes, even the goat turns in a great performance.
From the first scene to the last, it never goes easy on its audience, establishing a grim tone and maintaining an unsettling feel throughout. While the moments of violence aren’t lingered on, they are horrible enough to elicit shocks, even for this genre.
Eggers keeps the audience guessing who is responsible for the visibly horrific occurrences taking place in the forest. As the story (or, as the film’s title card announces, “A New England Folk Tale”) builds, we’re meant to wonder if it’s a particular family member, or an unidentified woman living in the woods, or if its everyone or no one at all. The ambiguity effectively brings into question how reliable the film’s point of view is, whether it’s through the eyes of Thomasin or her father. Are we seeing truly supernatural occurrences or do the hyper-religious, paranoid mindsets of the central characters make us see things that are strictly imaginary? By the final scene, it appears we have a definitive answer, though I’m not entirely sure.
Eggers blends the secular hysteria of “The Crucible” and the creeping fear of “Rosemary’s Baby” gradually, slowly pushing the opposing approaches together. Once things are out in the open and the horror aspects become literal, the film lost me. It wasn’t so much that the story baffled me as much as I just didn’t care. While the main characters garnered my sympathy and the whole thing is intriguing, the resolution is both off putting and too obvious. The end result seems like a missed opportunity for richer things and better story explorations.
“The Witch’ isn’t stupid or remotely mainstream, even as the third act may be what genre fans remember best about it. There are some frightening moments, including a few so cruel, I wish I hadn’t seen them. Eggers is questioning the structure of family, the roles of each individual family member and the way religion can provide a moral center and ground a person’s focus and yet still be a weakness. The questions the film raises are great ones- indeed, it provided me with thoughtful post-screening discussions.
For a film so brazenly disturbing (dogs, babies, cute kids- no one is safe in this movie), the choice to keep so much of the story open to interpretation and heading in such an obvious direction seems short sighted. I want to give Eggers the credit he deserves for crafting such an arresting and memorable first film. However, “The Witch” has imagery that is much stronger than its screenplay.