A Puritan family battles possibly paranormal forces in The Witch, a movie The Satanic Temple recently called “an official Satanic experience” and a harbinger of “a new Satanic era.“ That should act as either a ringing endorsement or ample warning for prospective viewers, but Robert Eggers’ directorial debut (that’s been building buzz since a rapturous response at Sundance in 2015) is much more complex than that soundbite implies.
Part of The Witch‘s success lies in its ability to carve out a niche entirely its own while probing rich thematic elements like the nature of belief and victimhood, and ultimately the root of evil. It follows other recent horror standouts like The Babadook (about the nature of loss) and It Follows (essentially an extended metaphor for STIs and sexual awakening) by tackling questions beyond “who dies next” and doing so with the kind of skilled filmmaking not seen since the genre’s previous high point in the 70’s.
The story is simplicity itself: a Puritan family in 17th century New England is excommunicated from their community, forced to live in exile on a farm that borders an intensely creepy forest (not exactly prime real estate). Rumours abound that a witch lives there, and the movie wastes no time by putting the youngest child (of five) in grave peril and then slowly ramping up the dread until it’s nearly unbearable.
Ralph Ineson (The Office UK) is William, the devout but stubborn patriarch of the family. It’s hinted that his unwavering belief is what caused the family to be cast out in the brief prologue, which makes him all the more culpable for the danger he puts his family in. His wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) quickly goes to pieces when their infant child is abducted, an act she blames on their eldest daughter Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) negligence. Things go from bad to worse as crops begin to fail and the increasingly weird and spooky happenings (possessions, blood pouring from goat’s teats, hallucinations) all point towards the existence of a real-life witch.
Much of the tension comes from the ambiguity that the movie deals with. The movie seems to answer whether the witch is real quite early, but then layers in doubts as both William and Kate come to believe that one or many of their children may have signed a deal with the devil. Eldest daughter Thomasin is a girl growing into womanhood who’s often at odds with her mother, and both parents eventually come to believe that she may be a witch as she’s always near when tragedy befalls her siblings. Caleb, a boy a few years younger than Thomasin, is more clearly meant as a symbol of purity, which unfortunately means in the world of The Witch that his fate is uncertain.
The young twins Mercy and Jonas are seemingly innocent as well, though their fascination with the family’s horned black goat (affectionately named Black Phillip) is cause for concern, especially as they maintain that Black Phillip whispers secrets that only they can hear. Goats, hardier and more easy to keep than cows, are both a symbol of The New World that William has taken his family to and the possible evil of Satanism that they may be up against. Needless to say, Eggers gets a lot of mileage out of weird goat imagery (and their off-putting horizontal pupils), while managing to make even rabbits seem malevolent in his dark frontier horror.
The rigorously detailed script (much of it drawn from 17th century accounts of “witches”) lends a huge amount of authenticity, as the characters speak in a Shakespearean-like tongue straight out of the bible (often quoting real scriptures). The cinematography (shot in Northern Ontario) is oppressively overcast and grimy, bringing to mind the natural lighting of movies The Revenant and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. In fact The Witch‘s liberal use of candlelit scenes, careful pacing, and intense devotion to verisimilitude (Eggers brought in experts to create a thatched farmhouse roof made with period-specific tools) should earn the filmmaker many comparisons to Kubrick, which is high praise indeed.
It’s a Puritan’s nightmare that The Witch delves into, a world where Godly devotion can’t trump worldly sins like pride and lust. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and Eggers’ film witnesses it with slow, methodical detail as a family is torn apart by suspicion and outside forces.Lending nuance is Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, who’s not the average female horror lead, as she has agency and resolve not usually afforded to such characters. The ending of the film is a whopper, one in which a journey comes full circle and brings to bear some truly bizarre imagery.
The whole movie is sprinkled with those flashes of brain-bending terror, moments of utter weirdness and wrongness like the WTF-elements of The Shining (like this one of a bear blowjob). Like Kubrick’s work, extreme attention to detail pays off with the realization of a whole and complete world, replete with characters we come to know and then fear for as The Witch conveys its primeval religious horror through extreme specificity of time and place. The heaving chest of a terrified child or the blood-curdling cackle of a darkened figure all have wicked effect, and once again witches are scary.
The Witch (2016)
Directed by Robert Eggers
Runtime: 92 minutes