As long as I can remember, I’ve always had a fascination with witchcraft. I can’t pinpoint any one thing that caught my interest (maybe it was all of the time that I spent in New England growing up), but something about the art of witchcraft has always grabbed me. From the moment I first heard about and began seeing teasers for The Witch, I knew that this was going to be a special film. It’s witchy and a period piece? I’m in.
Much has been made of the fact that The Witch is the directorial debut of Robert Eggers, and for good reason. Not only are the writing and directing top notch, everything else is, too. The acting, the cinematography, music, production design, lighting… everything. It’s all great. Eggers got his start in production design, so that much isn’t a huge surprise, but still, for a first time director to come out of the gates with something like The Witch is pretty remarkable. The one immediate downfall that I though of after viewing the film was the way it was marketed, something that I’ve seen happen time and time again. Much like Crimson Peak, the marketing campaign was very horror driven, and while The Witch certainly falls more into the genre than Crimson Peak, it’s something much more than that. Who knows, though, maybe that’s not a marketing fail, and more of an expectation set forth by an audience that has come to expect the clichéd, jumpy scares of most modern horror films. The Witch thankfully bucks these new traditions of gotcha moments and found footage, instead delivering a thought provoking, slow burning, haunting film that sticks.
Set in New England, circa 1630, the film focuses on a family exiled from a Puritanical plantation due to the father’s crime of “prideful conceit”. Portrayed wonderfully by Ralph Ineson (Harry Potter, Game of Thrones), William leads his family out into the unknown to find a new homestead. Settling on the edge of a vast expanse of woods, the family settles in and begins to build a new life. Shortly after arriving, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie – Red Road, Game of Thrones) gives birth to a son named Samuel, the couple’s fifth child. One day, Katherine hands Samuel over to their eldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), and as she plays a game of peek-a-boo with Samuel, he vanishes. After a bit of frantic searching, it’s reveled that Samuel was kidnapped by a witch living in the woods, and this, my friends, is where the shit begins to hit the fan. You, of course, expect some ill will to befall the child at the hands of this witch, but you don’t (at least I didn’t) expect to see her slathering herself in his blood and fat. So, there’s that.
Allow me to pause from the plot of the film for a bit, if you will. The one thing that I think tends to get overlooked as critics gush over Eggers’ debut as a director is the film debut (aside from one uncredited role, and come on, that doesn’t count) of Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin. Her performance in this film is utterly fantastic, and earns the casting team huge kudos from me. Obviously, the directing and writing play a factor as well, but you absolutely have to give credit to the performer who turns those words and directorial cues into action. You could drop Adam Sandler into a Martin Scorsese film, and he’d still be horrible. Taylor-Joy turns in an amazing performance, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for her, especially as her next film is the sci-fi thriller Morgan, directed by Ridley Scott’s son Luke.
Back to the film, after the disappearance of her son, Katherine is understandable distraught, and misfortune begins to plague the family. Their crops are rotting, the young twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) are increasingly disobedient and only listen to the family’s goat, Black Phillip, and hunting for food seems to yield little result. The one ray of sunshine is that William sure can chop wood. Go, William, go! Determined to provide for his family, William heads into the forest one day with eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) to hunt. Showcasing the religious fear and overall thought process of the time, Caleb confronts his father about young Samuel’s soul, as he was unbaptized. Thinking this leads immediately to eternal damnation, Caleb is convinced that his little brother is in hell. We know, of course, that he’s not in hell, but instead has become some sort of witch-skin moisturizer. Which I guess is a pretty sever form of hell, now that I think about it. Not having any luck hunting anything, William confesses that he traded his wife’s silver cup for hunting supplies, and the two head back to the farm. In the first sign of his cowardice, William allows Caleb to lie to Katherine about where they were. Later in the film, we also see him let Thomasin take the fall for the missing silver cup. Father of the year, right there.
The following day, when Thomasin and Caleb go into the woods to hunt and end up separated, thanks to the family dog bolting off after a weird, staring rabbit. Thomasin is thrown from her horse and knocked unconscious, while Caleb chases after the dog. He finds the dog, albeit in a slightly less alive state, and also discovers a creepy little house in the woods. Now, I’m a big fan of the less is more philosophy when it comes to “supernatural” horror films. Look at The Blair Witch Project – you never see what’s terrorizing them, and it works incredibly well. So as Caleb begins to creep towards the house, and you know the witch is going to be shown, I was groaning a bit at the expectation of what was to come. However, in another credit to the writing of the film, the witch that reveals herself is not a wretched, wrinkled old hag, but instead a busty younger woman – her cleavage preying directly on young Caleb’s desires (several times earlier in the film, he’s shown trying to catch glimpses down Thomasin’s shirt). The song may go “Never trust a big butt and a smile”, but this is close enough. Thomasin wakes up and finds her way to her father who is searching for her, but alas, young Caleb can’t be found. Of course Thomasin gets the blame for this, too. Oh, and those creepy little twins are accusing her of being a witch, so she’s not really having a great time.
Delving further into the plot gets too far into spoiler territory for my liking, but rest assured that the slow burn has a delicious payout. Again, I can’t say enough how great I think this film is, and what a fantastic debut it was for Eggers. Put it this way, I’m impressed enough by him that my instant skepticism upon hearing about a Nosferatu remake was immediately, and greatly, diminished when I found out that he was at the helm of that project. So there’s the best way I can sum up my thoughts on The Witch – it’s good enough that I trust the director to do a good job of remaking Nosferatu. That should tell you something.