A classically disconcerting tale, Robert Eggers’ The Witch is awash in tacit trepidation. The 2015 picture was also written by the director and features the cinematography of Jarin Blaschke, who explores the lasting unknown in malnourished woods.
The movie introduces itself as a folktale, but it exists within a defined historical framework. Eggers’ film is couched in the Puritanical conception of creating a “nation of saints” in the untried lands of America, with God’s light shining all the way back to heathenistic England.
The Witch opens as William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are exiled from a plantation. He takes his clan and settles outside the forest. His wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) gives birth to another child. One day, the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching the child when it goes missing.
Revelations suggest that ominous doings are afoot in the gaunt woodland. Katherine prays without ceasing. William and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) bond, while the twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) play with the goat. Later, Caleb comes across the lean-to of a witch. He returns to the homestead and all hell breaks loose.
The Witch is as much about the suggestion of horror as it is about “actual events” and that’s where Eggers illustrates his strengths. Over the course of an hour and a half, he nurtures seclusion, fantasy, pride, and irrationality.
Historically, The Witch lands decades ahead of the Salem witch trials and finds meticulous, moralistic people trying to carve out an existence. William and his family struggle with the land, but they also struggle to understand the land. Religion stirs them to purity, to an untainted relationship with Jesus Christ uninhibited by form or function.
Eggers crafts the austere tone with rare sophistication, using natural lighting for the outdoors and candlelight for the indoors. It invokes Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and rings true but for the infrequent whines of Mark Korven’s sometimes domineering score.
For the most part, The Witch is immersive and the performances go a long way to ensure audiences can get lost in the environment. Ineson is tremendous as a father trying to follow God, even if it means reaching Abrahamic levels of loss. And Grainger and Dawson chill to the bone in their curious dispositions to the devilish.
Taylor-Joy fascinates as Thomasin and her character is intimately layered by her understated performance. She becomes the implicit scapegoat, one elected to take on the mass of communal sin, but she is also deeply loved by her family.
Of course, affection only runs so deep. As trouble piles up, uncertainty gives way to accusations. The twins try to understand the world and Thomasin tries to release herself from it, but the oaths of seclusion and ignorance draw to an unsettling abyss. There are no answers. There is no comfort in Caleb’s final petition, but there are nightmares. Man, are there nightmares.
Things are less prescribed and more suggestive. And just as the Puritans sought to establish themselves as the salt and light of Christ’s allegory and the Satanic denizens of dark forests were said to sail above the trees on the strength of infant blood, The Witch reaches between truth and make-believe to find the horror inside.