The Witch is an atmospheric and unsettling horror film that finds more terror among the people than it does the supernatural.
Set in New England during the 17th century, a family is exiled from a Puritan community for being even too conservative for their liking and the family is forced to fend for themselves over a day’s ride away in the woods. The outcasted family is led by William and Katherine, Thomasin is their eldest teenage daughter, Caleb is a coming of age son, a pair of twins, Mercy and Jonas, no older than 5 or 6, and a newborn baby boy who is snatched by something and taken into the woods under Thomasin’s care. The newborn’s disappearance brings great distress to the family as the drama slowly begins to pull them apart.
Now, it’s no big secret that the certain “something” that stole the baby is a witch of the woods, and while director Robert Eggers does get plenty of tension out of this supernatural creature it is the drama on the home front that is most unsettling. Anyone who fears the hold religion can have over someone, especially when cited to carry out evil against others, will be most affected by The Witch. Eggers does a wonderful job at setting up all the angles among this family that end up collapsing in on themselves by the end, and while you might vehemently disagree with where some of the characters are coming from, you can still see how they got there. Eggers doesn’t leave any holes and does so with some outstanding visual storytelling throughout the picture. You always have to appreciate when a filmmaker takes the time to set up all the pieces and has the confidence that the audience will be right in step as it all comes crashing down.
The Witch is Eggers first feature film and you would never know it based on his work here. He and his cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, beautifully capture the woods in mostly natural light, with the forest line serving as a wall trapping this family in. When we go into the woods, the filmmakers give the film a look that feels separate from the dullness of the homestead, giving the woods a feeling of mystery and possibility that is both unsettling and alluring. The couple of brief looks we get at the witch and her home unsettle the viewer just enough to be wary of the threat she might pose, but she really is only present on a couple of occasions. Still, that overbearing danger and threat fills the film with dread and helps fuel the family pulling themselves apart. The filmmakers create a palpable atmosphere throughout the film, as they turn up the tension whenever they need to with ease.
The show-stopper sequence in the film is centered around Caleb and an illness that befalls him, and the film doesn’t really stop till the credits roll. The work by Harvey Scrimshaw in this scene is something to behold, as he tries to fight the sickness with the power of Christ he believes in. Caleb is a wonderfully, and subtly, painted character and Scrimshaw bring all the nuance and pain inside a coming of age boy might feel with nothing to look at but his own sister. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin and she is also excellent as she stands in the face of accusation after accusation thrown her way. Thomasin’s arc is very delicate and Taylor-Joy hits the right notes every step of the way. Her work bouncing off of Ralph Ineson, who plays her father, is when the two are at their absolute best in the film. Thomasin looks to her father for support and love, but as their relationship wains, both actors perfectly play the crumbling of their relationship; which is essential to buying into the film’s final beats. Kate Dickie also mesmerizes as the matriarch Katherine as her sanity succumbs to grief. Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson also deserve special mention for playing the devilish twins of the family. They both have these shifty little eyes and devilish grins, they are delightful shit disturbers.
The Witch is an expertly crafted horror film that is more about mood than scares. Is it the scariest film you’ll ever see, not even close, but there is a constant state of dread and tension that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Eggers’ craft and attention to detail is what makes The Witch work so well, add in a cast that hits every beat and you have yourself the horror movie to beat this year.