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Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Labeled a ‘New England Folktale’, The Witch is the latest psychological horror film that rightly attends more to the first part of that description than the second, though that is not to say there aren’t plenty of scares. Less a morality tale than an implosion of values and the family bond, this is a terrifying story that lingers heavy long after it’s over.
It begins as William (Ralph Ineson) and his large family stand before a Puritanical council who charge them with “prideful conceit” and with much admonishment, banish them from the community. They load their carriage and ride out to the horizon and come upon a clearing near a heavily wooded forest, praising the land as a blessing. William is married to Katherine (Kate Dickie). They have five children, from an infant son to a teenaged daughter named Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). When that baby disappears under mysterious circumstances while in the care of Thomasin, the seams holding the family begin to unravel. But what (or who) is pulling the threads? There is a dark menace seeping into the cracks.
Written and directed by Robert Eggers, in his debut, The Witch is a masterfully crafted work that from the first frame snares you like a trap and grips you with increasing dread. Saturated in amber gold and sepia, the lush cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke) feels aged yet inviting, even while we often fear where it will take us. Much of the story centers on Thomasin and we are meant to guess the nature of her being (as does she), though Eggers certainly shifts the question of evil upon just about all of the family members at one point. Katherine is the matriarch, and while William holds the title of family authority she clearly keeps the power, even while she spends much of the film in a terrible grieving state. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is the second child, a boy learning about manhood, discovering that his eyes now follow the shape of his older sister, merely in curiosity while he begs to understand more about the righteous path and the depths of human sin from his father. William is entwined in knotted snarls with them all, a devout man who watches as his family falls upon what they believe is a curse, cast by a witch among them who is ever present yet always in question.
With its limited (almost stage-like) setting, it is the performances that bind this so well, led by the young Taylor-Joy who is astonishingly compelling, a young woman who comes to recognize much of what is happening yet unable to accept what it is. Ineson’s rich, commanding voice is the perfect instrument for the period language (inspired by and quoted directly–we’re told in the credits–from actual journals of the time), which could easily have been a source for unintended laughs but instead layers the film in eerie authenticity. That feeling is extended by Mark Korven‘s oddly organic score that, if there is something to find fault with, does a chilling job of setting the mood but too often toys with convention and depends on clichéd stringy crescendoes that lead nowhere.
The Witch is not a typical horror film, one that relies on its expectation of fear to propel it forward. Like the family struggling to cope with the horrors that are closing in, we too remain unsure and struggle to piece it together. This is the film’s greatest strength, and that it takes us to its conclusion in both unexpected yet unsurprising ways while still having us think is testament to how confident Eggers is in his vision. The Witch has much to say and its metaphors and sybolism are the conversations it naturally inspires.