The Witch has been number one on my must-see list for some time, so of course I insisted on seeing it on opening day before my viewing could be influenced by critics’ reviews. Basically, I went in to Robert Eggers’ debut feature knowing only that it had garnered quite bit of attention at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, that it was promoted as a horror film (a genre I gleefully admire), and that it was basically about a 17th-century New England family that had been ostracized from it’s village, banished to fend for themselves in the deep dark unknown.
My highest praise for the film, aside from the claustrophobic and unnerving cinematography and brilliant period portrayals, is the fact that Eggers turns the modern horror formula on its head. Instead of having a long-drawn-out suspenseful build-up to observing the “monster,” we are very deliberately treated (if that’s the word) to seeing the title character in the first ten minutes or so of the film. What genius! It’s as if Eggers grabs his audience and warns, Make no mistake, this is what waits in the woods! Oh yes, we viewers know exactly what this unfortunate family is up against right from the get-go, and it’s creepy and disconcerting as hell.
What exactly is so disturbing about meeting our antagonist? Actually, what the viewer is not allowed to see. How’s that for a slap to the psyche? Like Hitchcock, Eggers leaves just enough to the imagination that your own inventiveness immediately becomes your most horrifying assailant. For the first time in my 40-odd years of cinephilia, I actually thought I might have to walk out of a movie. As the film progressed, I was grateful I didn’t.
Overall, I found The Witch to be both cerebral and ironic. Cerebral because this is most definitely a film that begs deep philosophical and theological thought and debate, even long after the screen fades to black. And ironic, because the answers to said thought and debate are clearly antithetical.
As more and more misfortune plagues the deeply religious family, their paranoia understandably grows. As a modern audience, it’s easy to dismiss such archaic and zealous notions. But even as the paranoia reaches brutally relentless levels, we discover that arrogantly dismissing these religious notions may not entirely be the answer to what ails our pitiable family.
Superb dialogue, costuming, and setting aside, it is the masterful portrayals of our desperate family members by Ralph Ineson (father), Kate Dickie (mother), Anya Taylor-Joy (eldest daughter) and young Harvey Scrimshaw (eldest son) that deftly entice us to identify so strongly with this godforsaken family. Their fear is palpable. Their paranoia contagious; thus, their convincing performances serve to underscore Eggers’ talent for immersing us so thoroughly in the disturbing world of his “folktale.”
More than once I found myself thinking, No wonder it was so easy for early settlers to vilify their neighbors and loved ones. Their brutal and desperate reality, mixed with their deeply ingrained religious paranoia and shame, practically made it mandatory to persecute “others” as witches. Were my loved ones facing the same situations, I may have been the first to volunteer to strike a match.
The Witch is considered a horror film, which in today’s industry usually equals shameful jump scares and gratuitous gore. I’m tempted to argue that this film would be best described as a visceral thriller. But because the primal fear The Witch elicits is both horrifying and supernatural — the kind of fear that twists its way under your skin and into your belly, perhaps horror it is.
In the final analysis, the real question we’re left to ponder is this: to our family’s way of thinking, the Devil is clearly to blame; but who, exactly, is the devil we’re dealing with?