Accented by lush cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, a haunting score from Mark Korven and bewitching dialog from writer-director Robert Eggers, The Witch is easily the most fascinating and baleful horror film of the decade. Set in 17th century New England, the film follows a family as they leave the safety of the plantation to begin a homestead in the wilderness. Something in the woods sets its sights on the family challenging their morals, beliefs and sanity. The film is a slow burn masterpiece as the horror of the unknown seeps out of the forest into the family’s home mentally tearing them apart. The film challenges religion, trust, sanity in a beautifully realized fable that is an exquisite horrifying dark fairy tale. Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy as father and daughter are captivating and Harvey Scrimshaw as the doomed son Caleb is equally riveting. Director Robert Eggers draws his audience into the film with an extraordinary amount of authenticity leveraging the family’s isolation to great effect. The Witch creeps into the audience’s brain and under their skin fueling their nightmares and fears for days long after. A high water mark for modern horror films.
The Witch begins with the family facing persecution for the difference in their beliefs. The father, William (Ralph Ineson), strong and proud, refuses to bend to the plantation owner’s (led by Julian Richings) demands and the family is cast out on their own. Together with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), William heads into the wilderness and claims a plot of land as their own. A year later another child is born as William struggles to sew his crops fearing he will not be prepared for the coming winter. While Thomasin cares for the youngest, playing peek-a-boo, the baby is snatched and dragged into the forest. The parents fear a wolf has claimed their child while the siblings are convinced there is a witch in the woods. When the oldest son also vanishes not long after, William is wrought with fear that evil has invaded his farm and begins to believe in his children’s dark stories.
While the description above suggests that the story belongs to the father William, The Witch is actually focused upon young Thomasin played marvelously by Anya Taylor-Joy. She is mesmerizing as she agonizes over the loss of her youngest sibling while under her care. Her eyes weep with the sorrow as she overhears her mother’s grief overcomes her causing the woman to call out in the night for her lost child. She wears the fear of God’s punishment as a veil. But, there is also a strength underneath all the pain that helps her craft a gripping character facing inner and outer conflicts. Ralph Ineson is brilliant as William bringing the role to life with a hushed heartache and a face riddled with misery and worry. The two actors convincingly convey the uneasiness of the family’s growing fear and distrust in each other and their beliefs. Even more fascinating is Harvey Scrimshaw who deserves accolades for his portrayal of Caleb especially after he wanders back into the farm after being held captive. His performance after is not unlike that of Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. The entire cast is well suited for the film and its challenging script.
The greatest thing The Witch has going for it is the tone and atmosphere that oozes out of every frame. The camera caresses the landscape with muted colors providing an authentic feel and mood. The air is filled with dread and despair. Robert Eggers holds his camera steady with long closeups or slow panning shots. Every movement, every shot, every focus feels meticulous and artistic. The film is almost painted onto the screen. Eggers also weaves an effective and almost supernatural soundtrack over his folkloric fantasy. Mark Korven’s music combines the whine of the strings with the rumbling of the base along with screeching, eerie vocals to evoke a sense of foreboding and terror. It somehow reaches out of the screen and wraps around the audience like a audible specter with an unsettling embrace. It never lets go.
One of the more amazing things about The Witch is the dialog from writer-director Robert Eggers who spent years researching the time, the dialect and the people. Rarely is a film as focused as The Witch. It is this singular vision that drives much of the film. Eggers impresses with simple shots of a wagon wobbling out into the wild or the family kneeling as the find their new found home. He chooses unusual closeups to draw the audience into a specific visual canvases such as Mercy leaning into the ear of Black Phillip, the large family goat, to whisper “baa baa” grimly into its ear. The dreamlike aspect of his camera and the way it moves through the story accent the fairytale quality of the story especially the more fantastical it becomes. Eggers brilliantly weaves the music, the cinematography and the dialog together in a unique and engrossing way.
The Witch is one of the most memorable and haunting horror films in the past few years in the vein of Babadook where the character and the conflict is palpable and thick. The film’s sole issue is its pacing which will challenge many audience members. At times, it is unclear where it is going or what a scene may be trying to communicate. However, it is never stagnant. The dialog, regardless of its authenticity, is challenging to follow at times perhaps more suited for linguist and purist than modern film audiences. Yet, that very dialog is crucial to the film’s ambiance and power. It represents the tone of the film as much as the incredible cinematography, set design and costuming. Robert Eggers’ direction and use of music is superb, promising a bright and compelling future. Look for Anya Taylor-Joy to become a star in the near future as she dominates the screen. The Witch weaves its spell crafting a horrifying tale of manipulation, fear and corruption, a fairy tale not suited for the faint of heart.
The Witch (4.5 / 5)