In the world of The Witch, Puritans are anything but pure. That was very much the point of course, and the movie’s characters portray it as such. This is a society in which cures are not applying medicine, but removing blood. Not finding good, but suppressing evil. And director Robert Eggers projects that philosophy so much in the world and story itself that it moves into a perverse justification. This would explain why this movie is being embraced by film critics and the Satanic Church alike.
The camera of encroaches on the forests as much as the creature nature encroaches on the settlement. It makes them look more 3D than any 3D movie I have seen. It only serves to make you like the central family, banished from the safety of the city to the anarchy of the woods. A life not just compromised by an ever increasing antagonistic relationship with God, but with a lack of sustaining crops, an inability to hunt and, as the title would indicate, spiritual forces coming into play. The tension of all these element ratchets not to build to a release, but to spiral out of control in a surreal, enchanting fashion. The Witch, sold in trailers as a Conjuring-like scare-fest, is actually more in kin with The Wicker Man, Dreyer and Bergman (specifically Hour of the Wolf), and is among the most confident debut features I’ve even seen. You know its confident when the film starts with using babies for rituals, only gets more bleak from there, and has the temerity to think it will get away with it.
The subtitle of a New England Folktale demonstrates just how committed the film is to these elements (the director having researched this for around five years). It is set in 1630, with the same paranoid period detail of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but is too focused on that setting to attempt to form it into any kind of modern day parable. It is more focused on dread, dread to the point that it makes one sick. The actors, through the direction and writing, convey this growing sickness with ease, particularly impressive when the majority of actors are children. The two parents (played by Game of Thrones alumni Dickie and Ralph Ineson) play the two opposites of dealing with the grief of lost children, inner and outer, unable to support each other and unable to get that support from any kind of deity; at one point the man prays against a chopping block, a deathly symbol if there ever was one. Also in pairs are the twins, the girl of the two (Ellie Grainger) reminding me of the kind of childlike maturity of a young Anna Paquin. But the greatest find of this movie is its main star, Ana Taylor-Joy, whose character Thomasin goes through by far the biggest transformation. If you need any more indication that the movie is ultimately about sin, the lead character has it in their name, and she goes through every angle of that theme with a conviction reserved for thespians, right down to the final shot that is still giving me much to reflect on (in how much it doesn’t answer for you).
One could say that in this respect the movie is too overwrought for its own sake, but if there is any subject that pretty much demands overwroughtness it is a movie about witches. No, any problems with the movie come when the movie deflates in not being able to meet all of those ambitions. When your cast is full of predominately child actors, and you have decided to fill your movie with a very specific kind of dialect, chances are its not going to make it very easy on them (the biggest victim of this was Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, but he still sold the hell out of his key scene). At the beginning this was much more of a focus and an issue, but as the hysteria of every character increases its hard to focus on anything other than the shrieks of terror and damnation.
Still, I would rather a movie’s faults come from too much ambition than too little. The Witch continues in the vein of great recent horror movies like The Babadook and It Follows by lowering the “scares” and heightening the tone for something more thematically and character driven, and if anything end up being all the more terrifying as a result. It also has the best goat in any movie ever. Praise Black Phillip.