The Witch follows the tradition of a new breed of horror movie, which itself is a throwback to essential horror of the 1970s that values the slow burn over gore, jump scares, or cheapening a plot for immediate satisfaction. The Witch, first a foremost, is interesting in telling a story. Everything that happens is at the service of that story, and it just so happens to be a work of the macabre.
In the 1600s, a family finds themselves banished from a New England community over a dispute in faith and practice. They resettle their lives at a day’s travel away from the village, and every action they take to restart their lives is plagued with hardship. They are unable to grow crops, hunting yields no reward and their youngest infant son vanishes—which they believe to be the work of a wolf or wild animal, but we knew better. The way the camera swivels and pans knowingly to the darkness of the woods, we know something looms within.
This being an era of early American history when witchcraft was believed as fact and was punished with death, the family suspects dark and ugly things about each other. Tensions run high, paranoia flourishes, and when their eldest son, Caleb, vanishes and returns with a sickness, their daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy in a career-making performance) is accused of being in cahoots with the Devil himself.
Robert Eggers, writer and director of The Witch, crafts the film with incredible confidence. He knows what’s scary, and he knows what isn’t, so he wisely avoids moments we all anticipate in horror where silence is punctuated with loud crashes and booms. Instead, he allows the silence to become deafening. He allows something to emerge, barely visible, from the darkness, while the score (by Mark Korven) stabs at stringed instruments, twisting in agony. And then when we fully see the terrible thing that goes bump in the night, it’s never quite what was expected. Fear changes on the situation and he allows the very logic of fear to transform itself based on the situation. Suspension of disbelief is never a given, it has to be earned, and Robert Eggers earns his moments where anything is possible.
Consider scenes that could have verged on jocularity if handled without the correct amount of self-awareness: A mysterious animal (sometimes a rabbit, sometimes a goat) acts… strangely. That in and of itself doesn’t create much in the way of suspense, but when the logic of that scene hinges on what may or may not be a justified fear of the unknown, it’s absolutely crucial. The acting in this movie from the human actors is fantastic, but the performance given by the animals—namely, Black Phillip, the goat—are just as good. Black Phillip acts uncannily human in some moments and defies what we would expect from a beast, so long before the characters suspect anything may be amiss, we’re already set on the edge.
The story itself is relatively simple, and simply told: We have the banishment, the hardship of a struggling family on the fringe of the society that has sunned them, the family drama, the excursions in the almost-certainly haunted woods, scary moments from the world of woods and the world of the “civilized” family colliding, and an unexpected payoff.
The Witch is not a gore-fest, but it doesn’t pull any punches. It’s not afraid to plumb the depths of the darkest corners of the human soul in all its inherent ugliness, but it doesn’t elevate these moments for exploitative thrills. When a moment of horror happens, it leaves the viewer feeling cold, chilled to the bone over the mere idea of something like that happening. In a work more grounded in reality like this, a single death that can’t be explained by rational minds is infinitely more terrifying than a dozen horny teenagers getting hacked to pieces by a madman. We are in on the action and inside the plot, so when something awful begins to happen, it affects us on an existential level. We’re not just observing gory things happening to people, we’re an unseen member of the family, feeling it crumble around us, with a force of pure evil pulling the strings.
By the film’s end, The Witch has created its own world where anything is possible, and the way the movie wraps up its loose ends in its character-based decision is just masterful. The way Thomasin deals with everything that befalls her was, to me, an unexpected delight. It’s refreshing to see a character work through something and make a decision that isn’t simply one to progress to a contrived denouement, whether it’s a decision we would agree with or not. This isn’t just some character acting stupidly to allow something to happen, it’s a human being, replete with flaws like fear, coming to a natural conclusion all their own. And all we have to do is sit back and watch what happens in horror.
The Witch is a very, very effective movie, and worth watching. It’s beautifully shot, elegantly told and the writing and performances are top-notch. Ralph Ineson (probably best known for being in the Harry Potter movies and Game of Thrones) is great, but I think upstaged by relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy. I hope that she and Robert Eggers find much success in future endeavors. They have a lot of talent and have made what is almost with certainty going to be one of the best films of 2016.