I had forgotten what a creepy setting pre-Revolutionary War America can be. An alien, unexplored new world, compound with a cornucopia of superstitions and rigid religious and societal trappings... terrifying. It's like being a kid, sleeping in a house that's not yours in complete darkness, and you're convinced if you turn the light on you'll go to hell. Plus, there might be a witch in the room.
The Witch is a metered psychological horror, telling the story of a New England family who must strike it out on their own after parting ways with their local community. The movie uses dialogue directly lifted from the time, which took me a little to get used to but is ultimately a strong positive, sucking you into the period. Although I couldn't tell you what indiscretion William (Ralph Ineson) committed against his people, it was clear that the patriarch made the decision, speaking for his family and leading them to be kicked out.
Soon after, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya TaylorJoy) is playing with the family's young baby (I don't know the baby actor's name. It's a baby) when suddenly the baby disappears in a horrifying scene. Young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) witness, and thus begins the trust issues within the family. I have a pet peeve with “everyone thinks a character is lying when the audience knows the truth” situations, but since we the audience isn't sure if Thomasin actually is lying or not, it worked for me. Also, I appreciated that a movie called The Witch doesn't wait long after that setup to show us that there is, indeed, a witch.
All the young actors do an excellent job with the difficult dialogue, mostly carrying the movie. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) along with Anya TaylorJoy's Thomasin play some heavy scenes, and surprised me a few times with their performances.
The Witch might be too slow for some audiences, but personally I found the pace helped me to absorb the touches made to the language, costumes and setting, all of which are moody and interesting. More importantly, the slow burn leads to all the payoffs. Everything supernatural is impactful. I could have gone for more, but that would have been a very different movie.
One can't talk about The Witch without mentioning its mascot and everyone's favorite character, Black Phillip the evil goat. Big praise to firsttime writer/director Robert Eggers and team for making barnyard animals scary and not swinging into goofy Sam Raimi territory. That takes restraint.
Feminism! The Witch is undoubtedly a feminist film, and it feels so natural that you might not realize the female characters are the strongest and most vital. The male characters aren't inept, but they're either too young to make a difference or set everything in motion. For an era of harsh gender discrimination – perhaps the embodiment of gender discrimination in the form of the witch trials – The Witch tells a believable womenled tale without going exploitive or on the nose.
The Witch is an unnerving look back at our young country and what we feared, told as a dark fairytale with a classic sense of cinematic storytelling. The careful tone and vision exceed most young directors, and I'm excited for what's next from Robert Eggers. The Witch II: Black Phillip in Space!
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Robert Eggers
Running time: 93 minutes