Spoilers should take their leave and trouble us no further.
I don’t remember ever watching this film in a theatre. I remember it didn’t resonate with me then, but I couldn’t understand why. People that were familiar with my tastes recommended it to me thinking I would easily embrace it as a favorite. Years later, I watch The Lighthouse (2019) by the same director, Robert Eggers, and found it a cinephile’s dream/nightmare. I think it’s time to take another stab at revisiting and finally reviewing The Witch.
The Witch was written and directed by Robert Eggers, in his full-feature directorial debut. It follows a family of puritans that has exiled themselves away from their colony and live on the edge of the forest. William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) try to rise their children in the ways of God, but their belief system is so wound up in knots that faith and fear appear to be the same thing. When evil starts coming about, it almost seems they’ve invited it in.
Eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and youngest twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are trying to be as devout as their parents. But they’re children, and children wander. The twins play with a goat and act up like the goat speaks to them. Pre-pubescent Caleb sneaks peeks at his sister’s female shape. Thomasin makes up dark fantasies to scare the rebellious twins. They’re cracks in the surface of innocence but in this world where faith is as tight as a noose around your neck, those things can doom them all.
The problems escalate when Thomasin loses newborn baby Samuel. You see her playing peek-a-boo with him, a good distance from the forest. She’s barely covering her hands and opening them. It is already slightly disturbing as we watch from Samuel’s perspective. The camera then switches to Samuel’s happy face until one of the takes just shows his empty blanket. You see nothing around Thomasin. Nothing could’ve just steal him away as fast as that, and yet Thomasin intuitively looks at the dark woods, just knowing something has dragged his brother in there.
The loss of Samuel begins an almost irreversible tipping motion. Katherine is willing to suspect Thomasin of losing a precious silver cup, one that we know William has already sold to buy hunting traps. Outside, the crops have perished. Inside, the crop of lies, jealousy, suspicion and hatred are bountiful. The family is at each other’s throats. The threat of harm can come from anybody in this family when consorting with the Devil is suspected. Suspicion stars with just a whisper. Innocence is a memory already faded away.
In any other setting, this would require some flight of fantasy, but set us back in the 1630’s, cooked up in a lonely cabin by the woods, ripe with religious zeal and it’s not too hard to start thinking witchcraft has bloomed early. When Caleb and Thomasin steal away during the night after hearing their parents’ plans to give Thomasin to another family to serve, the children end up in the very woods that they’ve been constantly banned from entering. After they get split, Thomasin ends up being found by her father but Caleb encounters something much darker in a seductive young woman.
The film tones are dark and seldom feel welcoming. This is not a horror movie that caters to the young teenage crowd. There’s no fun to be had. The dread is both ethereal and overpowering on every scene. Horror comes as a slow and steady drip. The movie never tries to lull you into a false sense of security. You are forsaken since you start and you’re just discovering as the story unfolds. The entire cast performance is dreadfully excellent, keeping the eerie tone throughout the film that nobody is safe from anybody else. Anya Taylor-Joy conveys the exact mix of a young girl horrified, betrayed and desperate. Ralph Ineson’s gruff voice conveys what feels like the exact balance of conviction and fanaticism.
Highly recommended for cinephiles and fans of the horror niche that I can only describe as dread. It’s that sensation that starts at the bottom of your stomach and feels like torture. You can sit through this film, no problem, but only when you get up and feel the movie still creeping up inside you is when it has done its work. It’s one of those films that requires your undivided attention, so for fans of gore or jumpscare it won’t really do the trick. Mainstream audiences that need a beat or a fright to stay focused will find it almost impossible to watch. It is not for everyone, and if you pick it up for a casual viewing you might find you have cheated yourself out of the experience. In such cases, I would recommend watching it a few years later.
That will do for now.