Winner of Best Director at last year’s Sundance Film Festival for former production designer and debut wunderkind Robert Eggers, The Witch is a jaw-dropper about a pre-revolutionary colonial family’s implosion after banishment from their settlement for unspecified contrarian religious practices. The family quickly unravels once hunger, lack of resources, and claustrophobic isolation settles in. Oh and also those satanic forces lurking in the surrounding woods. A nightmare-inducing formalist stunner, Egger’s debut is robust with context and deep with emotion before the scares even take their ruthless hold.
These sentiments are not to discount the chills generated by the film, for they are varied and relentless. The initial tone is like an apparition following you up a flight of stairs or entering an illogically frigid room; something unnatural is making its presence known before fully revealing itself. Once that presence does (and far sooner than expected), the scares run the gamut from moodily vicious to spiritually paralyzing, with a decent peppering of jump scares. The Witch terrifies so deeply by shocking you differently at each turn. Never have barn animals been so demonically unsettling.
Much like the evils of the witch(es?) descending upon the central family unit already rife with its own internal struggles, the biblical terror of The Witch takes over a film otherwise formed around family melodrama. Eldest daughter Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) struggles against the family’s religious expectation of piousness, further exacerbated by growing tensions between her mother and the untamable behavior of the younger twins. Younger brother Caleb’s (Harvey Scrimshaw) puberty-incited questionings of faith and growing sexual longings further isolate him from his family – he’s in limbo between both adulthood and youth, but also between belief and faithlessness. The parents are even further lost in the wilderness – father William (Ralph Ineson) struggles to keep the family afloat while suffering the consequences of his pride, while the mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) finds her steadfast faith shattered by rapidly mounting setbacks.
The film’s ensemble is perhaps its greatest asset, creating even deeper emotional completeness than Eggers already solid screenplay allows for on the page. Dickie and Ineson’s performances are so attuned to one another and together they craft years worth of unmentioned marital ease crashing down due to these unforeseen setbacks. Like Nicole Kidman’s work in The Others, here are two rare horror performances that are actually quite moving, especially on second viewing. Dickie particularly is firing on all cylinders,a performance unlikely to receive the attention it deserves because of genre bias. It’s a full-bodied portrayal of faith crisis and conflicted motherly affections that’s uneasy to shake for its authenticity.
Anya Taylor-Joy brings believable youthful defiance to Tomasin’s growing resentment to her parent’s expectations and withholddings, if perhaps anachronistically mannered and without being fully convincing in her final character decisions. Harvey Scrimshaw’s youthful inquisitiveness plays like a bland cipher, which the film uses to its full deceiving advantage in a complete stunner of a second act close. Scrimshaw becomes unhinged, amplifying the moments terrifying heights with an unexpected bit of inspired and frightening acting.
This internal familial conflict only heightens the impact of the frights to come. Taking note from horror classics like The Exorcist and The Shining, Eggers knows that context is key to rattle us on a deeper level. Without the established character blindspots and tensions, The Witch would risk becoming a mild spookfest with a more austere sheen. Thankfully, we’re treated for something more engaging for its emotional resonance and frustrations.
Kudos to Eggers for committing to the ending some might have called absurd. Unfortunately, the final moments are softer than the proceeding film (and scares) as character logic and motivation becomes hazy. One could extrapolate why Tomasin takes the route she does, but the unguided explanations are unsatisfying – especially as its inconsistent with the film’s behaviors of speaking plainly.
However, the film is a technical marvel while never obtrusively overstyled to dampen the story. The immaculate presentation of period details and pristine cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke, utilizing natural light to more impressive effect than The Revenant) are sumptuous, drawing us in against our own fight-or-flight impulses. Like last year’s marvelously lurid genre entry It Follows, the non-stop tension can also be credited to the ghoulish sound design and unique score (by Mark Korven).
This one will be living deliciously on our minds for some time.