There’s not a lot that I have to say about Roger Eggers’ The Witch that isn’t perfectly encapsulated by a single line from Drew McWeeny’s review out of Sundance 2015. “I’m not sure how you explain what you want in scenes like these to kids,” he wrote of one specific and electrifying moment midway through the film, “but Eggers manages to create a sense of mood and dread that is so suffocating at times that it feels like we’re watching something genuinely transgressive, something we should not be seeing.” The trailer for the film cuts this profound extract down to pull quote proportions – “It feels like we’re watching something we should not be seeing” – but you get the idea: McWeeny said a smart and astute thing about a movie that I admire profusely, and I wish I could go back in time and prevent him from seeing the damn thing before me so that I could say it first.
Even if I step outside of my movie critic ennui and evaluate my own feelings about the movie, there is still very little for me to say about The Witch in a formal review format. I should probably note that I have two pieces unpublished (at the time of this writing) in the queue that focus on the the film’s particulars; just the other day I sat down with Eggers and his leading actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, to pick over the movie’s historical and cultural elements (tune in for that next week, if I may plug my work on my own blog). Basically, banging out 800 words or so feels like added “stuff,” but such is my love for The Witch that I shall accept that hideous challenge. The Witch is, put in short, quite extraordinary.
It’s also quite specific to taste. Part of that may boil down to the period setting, which Eggers and his cast so devote themselves to nailing that you may feel as though you are watching a foreign language picture without subtitles. The English Eggers’ characters speak is years removed from the tongue we speak today, and when it is uttered by Ralph Ineson – best known, perhaps, as Finchy from The Office, or as Dagmer Cleftjaw in Game of Thrones – his deep, rumbling bass tones process the dialogue like meat through a grinder. (This does not sound like a good thing, but it is. Ineson has a criminally under-appreciated speaking voice. But I digress.) Part of it may also circle back to expectations. If you anticipate that The Witch is the type of film to play a trick on you, as so many contemporary horror films are wont to do, then you may find the entire affair puzzling in its forthrightness.
At first blush, that could read as a spoiler. Trust me: it isn’t. The Witch makes no bones about its supernatural elements. They’re there. We know they’re there. We meet the witch of the title in the film’s first fifteen minutes, and she looks nothing like Gemma Arterton, or Holly Marie Combs, or Elizabeth Montgomery; she’s ancient, decrepit, grotesque, and not at all what so many varied genre yarns have conditioned us to expect witches to be. Eggers is playing in a different and far more historical sandbox, the kind that couched all of the paranoid religious fears that gripped Puritan settlers in the 17th century. We all know that witches aren’t real, but roughly four hundred years ago the colonists did. The Witch is a deep dive examination of the period’s boogeymen, but the film does not validate those erstwhile Puritan nightmares as much as it merely articulates them. It’s the sort of horrific cautionary story mothers and fathers would tell their God-fearing children before tucking them in for the night. (Hence the film’s subtitle: “A New England Folktale.”)
The Witch occurs as a Puritan family in 1630s Massachusetts – composed of patriarch William (Ineson), matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their children, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy in what may be a career-making turn), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw, nearly as good as Taylor-Joy but with slightly less to do), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and newborn infant Samuel – is expelled from their colony by a council of assistants, following a dispute over spiritual practice. The seven move on to the edge of civilization and make a homestead near unspoiled woodland, which happens to be home to the eponymous hag. Things go downhill from there. Staple “bump in the night” stuff happens – crops fail, Samuel disappears literally right under Thomasin’s nose, game becomes scarce, Mercy and Jonas sing creepy songs about Black Phillip, the family’s goat who may not actually be a goat – but as things worsen for the family, the more that they turn on each other. The film blends the visceral elements we expect from horror films with family drama that’s wrought from dogmatic suspicion; Katherine comes to mistrust Thomasin, who is on the precipice of transitioning into womanhood, and blame her for all their ills, when perhaps she should be chiding William for getting them banished in the first place.
But no matter. If you’ve read about The Witch, you probably have the sense of its spiral-structure; things slowly go wrong, at first, and as the film progresses the dread and disaster build to crescendos of grim, unbridled lunacy. Eggers, who previously worked as a production designer in theater and in movies, has an astonishing hand for staging and composition, and so he captures the family’s unraveling with the utmost perverse clarity. Even a candle-lit moment of grace, spoken at the table as Eggers’ chast sit down for dinner, suggests foreboding gloom. Faith can’t help these people. Prayer can’t help them. They can’t even help each other, much less themselves, because let’s face it: even if they knew about the witch in the woods, how are they to fight the devil when God himself has abandoned them? Eggers couches a host of different ideas in The Witch‘s plot; it’s a fastidiously detailed snapshot of a time and place, a complex exploration of feminine power, a coming of age tale, and a classic “don’t go in the woods” yarn. Chiefly, though, it’s about where people turn to when their beliefs let them down.
Like many preeminent horror films that have come out of Sundance in the last few years – specifically The Babadook and It Follows – The Witch might end up being the victim of its own hype. In 2015, the film rolled out of the festival with plaudits from pretty much every critic in attendance, and it has been riding that wave of accolades since. So here’s some free advice, given generously in light of my clear bias in The Witch‘s favor: manage your expectations. The Witch is not purely terrifying. I don’t think it’s supposed to be. It is, however, unsettling and disturbing on a primal level. Lots of horror films try to jolt you for micro moments at a time. The Witch coils itself around your soul, through craft, through performance, through authenticity of era as well as feeling, and through narrative candor. It will haunt you long after your first screening, and hopefully compel you toward a second. Eggers has not just made a horror film. He has made a horror film that endures.