Starring: Anya taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger
Directed by: Robert Eggers
How pious do you have to be to get banished from a Puritan colonial plantation? That’s exactly what happens to a family of seven in 1630 New England, forcing them to relocate to a remote patch of land on the edge of…a forest. Uh-oh.
Forests seem to be prime real estate for witches, with their festering, malevolent trees that you just know is hiding a small, secluded cottage tucked away in isolation. Made of candy, it’s not.
The relocating family consists of martyr-like father William (Ralph Ineson) tragic-faced mum Katherine (Kate Dickie), innocent, repressed eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) bosom-conscious eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) mischievous younger twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson, Ellie Grainger) and nursing infant Samuel.
The family provides fodder for a neighboring, murderous crone (Bathsheba Garnett) whom they never see. The effects of her presence are apparent in the disappearance of some of the children. The crone is suddenly alluring and seductive (Sarah Stephens) – but at what (literally) bloody price? Never fear. Budding beauty Thomasin, an adolescent girl, will be blamed for every unsettling occurrence.
The year is 1630, decades before the Salem witch trials, but Thomasin rapidly becomes the center of the family’s hysteria, fueled by boisterous twin siblings who are vociferous mouthpieces of accusation and unrestrained commentary.
There is even “sin” in Thomasin’s name. Fingers point in her direction as death descends like nightfall on the family. Eggs and goat milk turn bloody, crops fail; even the animals seem sinister and conspiratorial. The surrounding forest is another cruel presence, first presented as foreboding treetops amid a choir of scream-like voices, a warning that is not heeded.
Creepy and grim, the film is riveting in a voyeuristic sense. A snapshot of an austere, religion-driven existence, full of the fear of sin and denial of pleasure, there’s almost no need for an embodied witch. The horror here is what’s happening to Thomasin and her ravaged family. Suspicion, accusations, and lies nearly rival the actual witch, who has precious little screen time after a brief, disturbing scene of baby Samuel’s fate. Afterward, in a newly acquired youthful and voluptuous body, she becomes Caleb’s frenzied downfall. Scrimshaw gives a tremendous performance here, anchoring an effective cast.
Black Phillip (Wahab Chaudhry) is the family goat and your guess would probably be correct on why he’d need a human credit
Writer/director Robert Eggers’ feature debut (previous shorts: Hansel and Gretel, The Telltale Heart), is an atmospheric tale of paranoia where those who pray are preyed upon without mercy, and without the help of the God that they call upon so frequently. Eggers won the Best Director Prize in the U.S. Narrative Competition at Sundance for The Witch, and utilized transcripts of the era for some of the film’s dialogue. You will encounter thee, thou, and thy by the cauldron-full. The period recreation is impressive, bu painfully slow pacing derails much of the plot’s effectiveness.
The snail’s pace (some would call it slow-building horror; I wouldn’t) ramps up during the last few minutes, resulting in a disjointed, out-of-place, where-did-this-come-from conclusion that’s almost anti-climactic.
The Witch is a misnomer for a film that’s really a study in the seduction of innocence and the hysteria of unchecked religious fervor. Packaged and presently as horror, had it stayed within the confines of a fanatically religious family, its dissection of the human condition under onerous constraints would be all the more potent.
As a horror film, it disappoints. As a psychological study of paranoia within an absurdly religious climate, it makes a point sharper than any witch’s headgear.