Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
The Witch is a psychological horror from Robert Eggers who makes his directorial debut. The film focuses on William and his excommunicated family, who’ve left their puritan settlement in England behind following a religious disagreement.
He decides to move them to a farm deep within the wilderness of New England. Set in 17th century, colonial America, and acting as a predecessor to the infamous Salem witch trials that would follow. The film provides an interesting look into a more primitive time when people were literally terrified of a dark forest, often mistaking perfectly innocuous natural events for the supernatural.
The opening shots of the film show William protesting his innocence, before him and his family are banished from the plantation.
The introduction of spine tingling, eerie, violin music provides the perfect match for the gloomy landscape the family now find themselves at. The forest is literally made to feel alive with numerous slow, brooding, shots casting an uneasiness upon both the family and the viewer.
The youngest member of the family, baby Samuel, then appears to disappear under the watchful gaze of his sister. His fate heavily hinted at in the very next sequence. Said sequence showing a naked, elderly lady performing some kind of blood ritual outside in the torrential rain and under the cover of darkness.
Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the firstborn child, tasked with watching the baby when he was taken, is fast entering her ‘womanhood’ and faces an incredibly tough time throughout. Having to balance her time with looking after her younger siblings, doing extra chores, whilst dealing with the emotional turmoil that puberty brings.
She also has the misfortune of being involved directly or indirectly with the majority of the seemingly mysterious incidents that take place. This causes her mother to cast a mistrustful eye upon her. The fear and paranoia reaches fever pitch as the crops fail and their supplies begin to run low; with accusations of satanism and witchcraft eventually being used as the explanation for the events at the farm.
This is further exacerbated by a foreboding forest that really creates a suffocating air of claustrophobic tension.
Her other brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), also entering puberty, is obsessed with reciting religious scriptures, punishing himself for the new found sinful thoughts that cross his mind. Desperate to aid his father in any way possible, we see him helping to lay traps and hunt animals for their pelts within the forest. The young twins, who develop an unhealthy relationship with the demonic looking goat ‘Black Phillip’, give off creepy vibes throughout and their mischievous personalities, not to mention tongue in Mercy’s case, cause no end of bother.
Katherine (Kate Dickie), the grief stricken, homesick mother seems close to a mental breakdown at any point.
She spends a sizeable proportion of the film sobbing and praying for her loss in equal measures, only taking short breaks from either when an opportunity appears to berate Thomasin. William (Ralph Inason) is the highly flawed father of the family who struggles to keep things together in the face of growing adversity. Turning to his deeply, devout faith in Christianity to help guide him through, though no help ever seems forthcoming.
Given the rather ambiguous nature in the way Eggers portrays the story, it’s never really clear whether the events taking place at the farm are indeed at the hands of a real witch per say or whether the whole thing is a paranoid figment of the family’s imagination, as they crack up from the isolation.
With the overwhelming majority of the film being seen from the perspective of Thomasin, there appears to be an equally strong case for the real witch within the story being her. As mentioned previously, she is present when every tragedy or incident takes place and given she’s seems to be the sole survivor at the end (the twins disappeared completely). It’s not a massive leap. One thing that is clear to me about this film, is the overarching themes. In my mind, it’s very much about the dangers of organised religion and female empowerment. The family literally tears itself apart with mistrust and self doubt, the patriarchal heads too obsessed with their beliefs to use logic or common sense to save themselves and their children.
Finally, Thomasin grows from being a child at the beginning to a woman at the end. At one point she almost gets sent away to be married off against her will. Even if her choice to join the coven of witches/satanists wasn’t the brightest, it was the first real time she made a decision for herself in the entire film.
Ralph Inason does a splendid job here. His gruff, Yorkshire accent, is accentuated with the traditional English dialect used throughout the film. For me, both him and Taylor-Joy were the standouts. The latter essentially carrying the film for long periods with a very impressive performance. Kate Dickie also impresses. Any fan of Game of Thrones will know that she’s able to play the neurotic motherly figure as good as anyone.
Finally Harvey Scrimshaw puts in a reasonable effort too and despite overacting slightly at certain points I thought the scenes in his sickbed after returning to the farm were impressive for such a young actor.
Visually the film was extremely well shot, the use of natural light throughout echoing that of the much lauded Revenant. Not to mention the slow shots of the woods with fog to boot adding an eeriness to the family’s small clearing of land. Jarin Blaschke did a fantastic job of really immersing the viewer into the period. The costume designs were apparently hand stitched, highly detailed and very impressive looking. Musically the string arrangements did their job.
Adding tension and suspense effectively. A special mention must be made to Eggers, the production team and writers, who went to great detail in recreating the 17th century environment, speech and feel perfectly.
Overall, it’s not your average horror flick, full of jump scares and the usual nonsense, which is probably for the best, because I’m not a fan of that anyway. It’s more psychological, focusing on the slow breakdown of the family. Do I think this is a fantastic film? Nope, I don’t. But it kept my attention from start to end and was decent enough.
I don’t give numerical scoring, but if I did then it would be a solid 6.5/10.