In 17th century New England, a man named William (Ralph Ineson, Game of Thrones) is banished from his village due to an irresolvable religious conflict of sorts with his neighbors. We aren't sure what the nature of the conflict is, exactly, but William's behavior suggests that others may have found him just a little bit too devoted to his faith. Anyway, William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, Game of Thrones) and their four children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, Vampire Academy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) hastily leave the village and find a new home on the outskirts of a large, forbidding forest.
By the time the family has a new house built and new crops growing, an infant named Samuel has joined the family. Alas, the poor lad is not long for this world. One day, while Thomasin is conducting an innocent game of peek-a-boo, the boy is stolen and whisked into the woods by... something. Thomasin has no idea what happened, and the family assumes that some creature – a wolf, perhaps – must have taken the child. Here, the film briefly departs from the family's point-of-view and reveals the truth of the matter to the viewing audience: Samuel has been stolen by a witch, who grinds the boy up into paste (which she proceeds to slather all over her aged, wrinkly skin).
It's a scene which effectively demonstrates just how pitiless the movie is willing to be, and one that sets clear parameters for the story we're about to witness. Given that much of The Witch is steeped in themes of religious fundamentalism and sexual repression, it's tempting to look for ways to see the witch herself as some sort of imaginary, metaphorical figure. However, to offer such a reading would require ignoring the numerous scenes in which the film firmly suggests that the witch is, in fact, a witch. It would also require ignoring the film's subtitle: this is "A New-England Folktale," and one that feels ripped directly from the era in which it is set. It's told with the grim conviction of a religious zealot recounting unspeakable horrors, and that sincerity goes a long way towards making The Witch the deeply unsettling experience that it is.
To be sure, life is difficult enough for this family even without the witches. William's confident demeanor and deep, authoritative voice masks his fundamental impotence – he's terrible at hunting, farming and parenting. He seems to spend an inordinate amount of time chopping firewood, perhaps because (as Katherine bitterly suggests) it's the only thing he's good at. Katherine seems to be every different kind of miserable: angry at her husband, distraught over the loss of her young son, fearful for the souls of her children (it seems leaving the village means a lack of access to proper baptism rituals). Thomasin is forced to cope with the confusing challenges of reaching puberty, while Caleb is tormented by the notion that his little brother might actually be in hell (William refuses to say one way or the other). The family's firmly-held religious beliefs merely add fuel to the fire, as it leads some family members to believe that all of their miseries must be some form of divine punishment. Maybe they're right.
There's enough religious angst and bone-deep grief in The Witch to fuel an Ingmar Bergman drama, and the added layer of supernatural terror creates an experience that feels almost suffocatingly intense. The horror the film conjures has an ancient, timeless quality: it seeps into the film slowly rather than bursting into the frame via cheap jump scares. The camera often has an eerie steadiness, gazing at deeply unsettling sights without batting an eye. We gaze into the expressionless eyes of animals, and are left to wonder whether the emptiness we're seeing indicates the presence of evil. The soundtrack is filled with ghostly, Ligeti-esque voices that begin in a dark murmur and build to an atonal thunderstorm of agony. The cinematography makes tremendous use of natural light... or rather, the absence of it. Faint moonbeams and flickering candles cut through the darkness, giving us dimly-lit snapshots of things too horrible to see clearly.
None of the actors in the film are big names, but this is a tremendous ensemble. Taylor-Joy does a fine job of occupying the film's center, and her performance draws a heart-wrenching line between the confusing horror of being thrust into womanhood and the confusing horror of being accused of witchcraft. Ineson and Dickie do a tremendous job of creating a marriage that seems to be in a hellish state of disarray from the beginning and only grows more battered as the film proceeds. Perhaps the greatest performance comes from young Harvey Scrimshaw, who anchors the film's most memorably nightmarish scene (no small feat in this particular film). In one furious burst of agony and ecstasy, Scrimshaw conjures a host of elements lurking beneath the film's surface - lust, faith, fear and devilry – and delivers a moment of profound awe and terror.
The Witch is the directorial debut of Robert Eggers, who immediately establishes himself as one of horror's most exciting voices. His next project is a remake of Nosferatu, which seems like a promising idea given the The Witch's brand of atmospheric dread. Imagine one of Ken Russell's demonic horror fantasias directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and you have some idea of what this feels like. In addition to the aforementioned Bergman influence, there's also a strong element of Rosemary's Baby in the way the film tells you what's happening, and then slowly, steadily draws horror out of letting you watch the film's assorted characters learn the truth of the matter. One of Eggers' most striking techniques is the way he continually cuts to black between scenes and pauses for a few seconds, leaving you uncertain about whether the light will return and the dark tale will continue. When the lights go out for the last time, the uncertainty lingers. This is one of the great horror films of recent years.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Year: 2016