I’d been eagerly awaiting The Witch from the very first trailer. It looked like it might be a piece of somber, serious, thoughtful horror, very much a rarity these days. Also, while there have been a few fantastic horror films about witches, notably Dario Argento’s magnificent Suspiria, Mario Bava’s Gothic masterpiece Black Sunday with the unforgettable Barbara Steele, Michael Reeve’s grim Witchfinder General, and 1922s purported study of witchcraft by Benjamin Christanesen, Häxan, the subject has been pretty slim of late. Thankfully, The Witch not only delivers, it delivers something quite unique.
In 1630 New England, farmer William (Ralph Ineson) chooses exile for his family rather than change his unbending, puritanical views. Together with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their older daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and twins Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), they brave the wilderness and attempt to make a go of it apart from society.
The Witch is a slow, methodical film. Writer-director Robert Eggers gives much to chew on – this is a film heavy in theme, from considering patriarchy, to fear, to the inevitable problems that blossom from rigid, Manichean thinking and rule-structures. Eggers wants us to empathize with his characters and understand them as much as he shows us their folly. The film suggests that puritanical views lead to paranoia, persecution, and oppression; as the film progresses, we see that just as William’s family have been riven from society, rifts begin to appear in his family. In order to enhance the mood, Eggers shot the film in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1, making the forest seem all the more monolithic and menacing and the interiors all the more suffocating. I had assumed that the film would play around with ambiguity, making us question whether the world of the film is one in which the supernatural is possible, but I didn’t expect the film to keep me guessing whether what I’d seen was in the mind of the characters, or whether it was real. The Witch treads between dream and reality with ease, leaving the viewer unsure about what they’d seen, or what it all means in the very best ways.
The Witch is an excellent piece of filmmaking. Eggers uses his extensive research, stunning cinematography, sound design, tremendous work from all the actors involved, and the extraordinary score by Mark Koven to submerge us in a world of suspicion, doubt, temptation, and the supernatural. He evokes the tradition of fairy tales and literature (Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, most notably) and delivers something wholly unique. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from this exciting new filmmaker.