The Witch July 3, 2016
I relish films like The Witch. I hang onto their every word, their every image, analyzing every detail with vacuous diligence. I lounge in their moods and their sheens, hungrily looking for symbolism, for a hidden element, as if I were an insatiable succubus only able to feed on the enigmas of the celluloid. To be stricken with such overwhelming cinematic fascination is not something I’ve often felt within the scattered decade that is the 2010s. The Witch is a lustrous, audacious achievement reminiscent of the more gothic works of Ingmar Bergman and the most suspense heavy pieces of Roman Polanski.
Written and directed by Robert Eggers (in his filmmaking debut), it’s a horror film much less interested in outright scares than most within the genre. Though terrifying, its supernaturally biased premise is only a single feature of its multifaceted aspiration. It strives to dig deeper into the darkest components of the human experience, and some of The Witch’s most disturbing moments don’t come from a place of otherworldly ghastliness at all: the dissolution of familial bondage, the crumblings of marital bliss, the hardships of survival, and the complexities of sexuality are all things that only heighten the film’s exceedingly harsh atmosphere of despair, paranoia, and the macabre.
Set during the end of the 17th century, The Witch follows a typical New England family as they try to navigate an oppressive world characterized by Puritanical confusion and an overall disillusion with North America. Recently banished from a plantation for reasons too vague to obsessively dwell upon, patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), alongside his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and soon-to-be five kids (Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson), settles on a barren patch of land surrounded by a forest so foreboding it seems to be as much a character as any of the film’s living, breathing ones.
Shortly into their nesting does Katherine give birth to a healthy baby boy, Samuel. But other than his delivery, not much is happy on the makeshift plantation. Food is scarce, diversion is limited, and family bonds are on the brink of collapsing. Such characteristics would be expected for any clan to undergo in the face of similar circumstances. But, in addition to tension on the property, inexplicable phenomena begin to let themselves be known, escalating until it seems as though the essence of biblical evil could be on the farm, ready to steamroll any sense of prosperity.
The Witch does often rely on its titular villain (whom I refuse to talk about for the sake of spoilage) for sanctimonious terror, but I think the movie is at its most interesting when the spotlight is taken away from paranormal malevolence. Eggers doesn’t just rely on the mystical to ensure visceral impact; he also explores the effect newly formed adulthood can have on a dysfunctional family, how grieving can be a painful, sometimes violent force, how assigned expectations of gender can disturb one’s placing of their identity. With his ideas solidified by an award-worthy cast (Taylor-Joy, as eldest daughter Thomasin, is particularly strong), there’s never a moment in The Witch that isn’t saddled by turmoil, whether anguish be caused by opposing forces or one’s self.
So many horror films forget that disquiet is best achieved by sources that stray away from the central menace; The Witch is so triumphant because its dread is all-encompassing, always sneaking about and never to be unfelt. Unsettlement becomes us, and the feeling, despite its negative connotations, is enlivening. To find one’s hairs standing on end, flesh prickly with the goosebumps that come along with adrenaline, is a sensation that never quite seems to come to a halt until The Witch’s closing credits flash before our eyes. This is one of the finest movies of the year. A