It is impossible to grow up in New England and not have some awareness of the Salem witch trials. A potent combination of religious extremism superstition along with the hardship and isolation of colonial life led to the accusations of witchcraft and the execution of several people in colonial Massachusetts during the 1600s and culminated in the Salem witch trials in which twenty people were executed, mostly by hanging. Despite not believing in witches and witchcraft or most of the supernatural that constitutes horror, I have always found a fascinating, mystical lure to the stories and folklore of these tales, even though I’ve never read anything in depth on them. It’s easy to see the beliefs of witchcraft taking hold in these people, living in a new world far from home, not knowing much about medicine or science or the natural world around them and believing that this strange new land has strange dangers lurking in its untamed woods. This is the setting for The Witch, a film that places the viewer where the edge of civilization meets the threshold of the wild with a family that slowly unravels at this meeting point between the old world and the new world.
Willfully banished from the Massachusetts plantation settlement due to a religious disagreement, a man, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family set off to make it on their own in the wilderness of 1630 New England. They settle on a field on the edge of a forest as a place to make their home, praying over it, and the story skips ahead to their fledgling homestead that includes a house, a barn, and a field with crops. The sudden disappearance of the youngest, newborn child, Samuel, sends the family into a downward spiral. It leaves the mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie) distraught. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) the oldest daughter, can’t help but feel responsible for losing him. Her younger brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is doing his best to help his father hunt and to harvest crops. The two youngest siblings Jonas and Mercy, fraternal twins, blame Samuel’s disappearance on Thomasin being a witch. The crops begin to fail, tensions in the family rise, and more mysterious happenings begin to happen with increasing frequency, causing the family dynamic to slowly unravel.
Writer/director Robert Eggers has crafted a spellbinding, atmospheric tale. According to a placard right before the credits roll, this film was based on the many tales and legends and folk stories that circulated from this time period involving reports of witches. The subtitle on the opening credits, in fact, calls it “A New England Folktale.” He has a strong grasp on the source material he has crafted his story from, mostly eschewing excessive violence and gore and opting for building tension and creating an atmosphere of unease that creeps in slowly and slowly envelopes the whole film. There are moments of violence and gore and a few truly disturbing images, but mostly they are just glimpses and hints at something, leaving a lot to the imagination. I have heard some people who grew up in the city question what is so scary about the woods, but something about them hints at ancient history and imposing mystery which, under the right conditions, can be made to be something sinister, and The Witch is the best film since The Blair Witch Project at conveying that effectively.
The performances, like the location of the film, are very natural and grounded in the real world around the characters; even the language sounds and feels authentic. The failing crops and William’s potential inability to provide for his family are as pressing a concern to the characters as the lurking supernatural that is lingering in the surrounding forest. Thomasin is the central player in all of this, and Taylor-Joy gives a very good performance. As a teenager and the eldest child, she is the de facto third adult, and helps with the bigger chores as well as watching the younger children, which is a source of frustration as the twins are unruly and do not mind anyone. She is also a teenager who is becoming a woman, and there is the possibility of her being married off to ease the burden on the family, making one less mouth to feed. Kate Dickie embodies a grieving mother, not going over the top in her portrayal of mourning. Young Harvey Scrimshaw also has some impressive moments, including a showy one in particular.
The film does an effective job laying out how tenuous their living situation is by how easily relationships become strained and lays bare the importance of truth and honesty. William and Caleb lie to Katherine about going into the woods to hunt so as not to worry her. William fails to disclose that he traded a silver bowl that had sentimental value for supplies. Thomasin, in a moment of annoyance when one of little twins calls her a witch, turns the tables on her little sister in order to scare her away and get rid of her. All of these things are innocuous enough under most circumstances, but when things begin to take a turn for the worse, they take on heightened significance and have unintended consequences, causing things to spiral even more.
What impresses me most about this film is how every aspect of it works in concert together to create the mood and sense of mounting dread that is the tone of the film. Eggers is clearly someone who has studied other films, and I sensed two particular films as possible influences. First, and most prominent to me, was the pacing and several static, lingering shots of scenery and background, sometimes slowly zooming in, while overlaying a loud score that is heavy on string instruments that convey a sense of dread and distress that reminded me of Stanley Kurick’s The Shining. Second, there is a recurring animal motif, particularly a rabbit that keeps appearing from the woods and a black goat that the family owns and calls Black Phillip (and that the twins claim speaks to them), that is reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist which also takes place in a remote forest location.
The film also touches on several themes. There is the aforementioned family dynamic coming undone, but there is also the fear of the unknown, issues of pride and humility, hormones and temptation, and of course religion and superstition. Most interesting though, may be how the sense of betrayal can be a two-way street, and how if someone is betrayed by those closest to them in such a fundamental way, it can lead them to reject what they have and embrace something else.
The Witch is a slow-building horror film that is unnerving and unsettling in a way that only the best horror movies are. Everything from the setting to the cinematography to the performances to the score create an affecting, creepy tone that has stuck with me long since I left the theater. It is a film that is hard to shake. It is not the typical horror fare that most audiences are used to seeing these days, downplaying flashy visuals and big jumps. This is classic horror at its best.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars