Somewhere in life, you’ve probably been exposed to an integral part of New England’s rich history – witchcraft. If you haven’t, you’ve definitely been privy to the phrase, “this is a modern day witch hunt,” a phrase favored by the media, law enforcement and politicians. The Salem witch trials are a deep-rooted part of early American culture, as colonial paranoia ran rampant and became a blight on our burgeoning independent society. If you’ve ever taken a tour of that city, you can still feel it in the soil – or maybe that’s just hyper-astute, and easily creeped out, me. Steeped in that same vintage Americana is writer-director Robert Eggers THE WITCH. This prickly, shifty, unnerving psychological nail-biter turns the screws slowly, resulting in a vise grip of terror. Whether or not the feeling it imparts stays under your skin after the credits roll will depend on the viewer. (Whispers: It will.)
Recent British expats William (Ralph Ineson) and his family have been banished from the plantation over some sort of a religious disagreement. Left to make it on their own, they find refuge far away on the land bordering the thick woods. This could be their fresh start – or will it be their demise? When an innocent game of peek-a-boo between older sibling Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and baby Samuel leads to a red-cloaked “witch of the woods” absconding with the nubile youngster, the flood gates for familial mistrust begin to hemorrhage. The ties between grieving mother Kate (Kate Dickie) and daughter – who, incidentally, has just come into her womanhood – unravel. The youngest, obnoxious twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), don’t help matters as they are busy communing with Black Phillip, a goat with a commanding presence. Things worsen when crops don’t yield food and William and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) must turn to the terrifying woods to hunt.
At first glance, THE WITCH may seem like THE VILLAGE. Rest assured it’s not. There’s a much more satisfying payoff here – it’s arty and up to interpretation, but there’s a payoff nonetheless. Eggers leaves audiences with a lot to ponder. Many thought-provoking questions arise, though none are born out of confusion. To discuss themes in depth feels like spoiler territory. To reveal them would be too much – although Eggers does spell out that pride is really the root of this evil that befalls this family. I wish he’d have trusted audiences to figure this out as it’s made pretty clear before William speaks of it. Deeper meanings from the allegories, metaphors and pagan symbolism can be gleaned. Moreso on repeat viewings – which this film begs for. Eggers strips down, if not eschews, a lot of tropes of the genre. It’s bewitching (had to say it) to see this back to basics/ trimming the fat approach blossom into something unexpected and completely transfixing. Since this is atmospheric New England folklore, Eggers commits to the bit by having his characters speak in period appropriate dialogue. At times, it can be a task to decipher what they are saying (once it hits home video, the subtitles feature will be a blessing), but overall, you’ll get the gist.
Aesthetically, this is a gorgeous piece of cinema. Static shots of the gray, foreboding sky permeating the landscape; the dank, imposing forest emphasizing the twisty, gnarled nature of witchcraft; the warm glow of natural candlelight; the deep saturation of the color red – all pop out of Eggers’ painterly canvas. Petting zoo animals has never felt so ominous. Augmenting the sonic soundscape, composer Mark Korven’s score is incredibly Kubrick-ian, sounding inspired by 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and maybe THE SHINING. It’s delightfully, deliciously off-putting. To hear it not married with the picture would be nightmare-inducing material.
This is the exact type of movie that would keep me up at night when I was a teen. As an adult, it’s haunted me for weeks. Unsettling in the best of ways, THE WITCH is unnerving feminist-friendly horror done right.
THE WITCH opens on February 19 and is rated R.