William (Ralph Ineson) has taken issue with the behavior of his village’s leadership and believes they’re not properly following the word of God, but instead of changing their ways his complaints result in the banishment of him and his family. He, along with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and five children, moves out to a solitary patch of land bordering a dark forest to begin anew, but the pressures of leading a pious life take their toll on the entire family.
To be fair, the witch in the woods who abducts, murders and bathes in his infant son’s blood isn’t helping matters.
It’s safe to say that writer/director Robert Eggers’ feature debut, The Witch, giveth no shites about your genre expectations. The film is a powerful slow burn dripping in period detail, dialogue authenticity and atmospheric dread, and while it moves at its own pace the end result is like a Halloween-themed episode of Little House on the Prairie by way of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List.
The oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is tasked with multiple chores and responsibilities, but when her baby brother is stolen during a game of peekaboo she finds herself under increasing suspicion by her God-fearing family. Accusations of witchery are lobbed her way by her fraternal twin siblings – who, let’s be honest, add to their pre-existing creepiness inherent in all twins by having conversations with their ominously named goat, Black Philip – and the familial tension continues to ratchet upwards as things go bump in the night and the isolated farm fails to deliver a bounty.
Eggers’ film, subtitled “A New England Folktale,” hits fast and early with the kidnapping/mulching of the youngest family member, but it settles down some as they decide to believe a lone wolf made off with the baby. Life goes on and all of that, but their loneliness and crop troubles quickly bring everyone – characters and viewers – back to the edge. The film’s design, from production to sound, is partly responsible for that as a score made of strings and choral voices works alongside crisply terrifying sound effects to immerse us in this dark new world. That same level of meticulous design and construction is evident in the house, costumes and conversations.
The dialogue adds immensely to that immersion, and Eggers has credited written period accounts with achieving that authenticity. “Did ye make some unholy bond with that goat?” asks William at one point, and it’s both amusingly on point horror-wise and frightening in its implications.
The film does take a minor misstep around its midpoint as the finger pointing grows out of control. Accusations of devilish intervention roll across the screen like a game of whack-a-witch as William reacts violently towards one child, then the next, and then back again without pause. It speaks to the conflict between knowledge and religious belief, where unexplained events could easily be blamed on or credited to supernatural design, and while the back and forth frustrates for a short while it ultimately adds to the uneasy atmosphere. Equally noticeable (and ultimately forgivable) is the film’s desire to build its mystery by intentional misdirection and flat-out avoidance of the truth.We’re made to wonder as to certain characters’ allegiance even though another present in the room should be able to reveal what’s happened.
The cast does strong work, from Ineson and Dickie on down to the twins, but it’s Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw (as the family’s oldest boy child) who connect emotionally through powerful, fear-filled performances. Scrimshaw delivers with one scene in particular that sees his character speaking in tongues and terrified of what lies beyond the curtain of our world. Taylor-Joy has the tougher role of balancing her innocence in the face of increasing suspicion.
Make no mistake, The Witch is a horror film, but it’s as interested in the terrors we bring upon ourselves as it is the ones well out of our natural control. The dangers of blind faith, the trouble with interpretation, and the inability to accept the unknown as simply a temporary gap in our knowledge all combine to form a world where man continues to be his own worst enemy. Well, the witch in the woods still isn’t helping matters any either.
The Upside: High level of authenticity; intense sequences; creepy atmosphere; wonderfully acted
The Downside: Some narrative repetition and misdirection grows old
Editor’s note: Our review of The Witch originally ran during Sundance 2015, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens theatrically this weekend.
Related Topics: Sundance