Written and directed by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Drama / horror
It’s rare that a film as powerful, minimal and frightening at The Witch comes along, especially a plain spoken, historic film set in the New England wilderness in 1630. Its absolute precision in language, characterization, cinematography and overall execution is so fresh and new, and through the story, it is believably ancient.
Its grey palette, overcast skies and endless woods set the stage for Eggers’ disturbing psychological drama that for my money, veers only momentarily into horror. The Witch is too authentic, too pure to be considered horror; it’s much more than that.
The film raises a curtain on something terrible that threatens not just the characters but all of humanity, an unsettled interior life expressed in savagery. It mirrors a deep sense of panic and instability, heightened by superstitions of the day and a run of bad luck.
The Witch has its roots in real history, set sixty years before the infamous Salem, New England Witch Trials in which at least thirty young Puritan women were murdered, suspected of casting spells, serving Satan, keeping cats and growing herbs.
Witchcraft had its roots in casting “white magic” spells for good crops and the like, and later turned dark to “black magic”. Women- always women – suspected of witchcraft were tested in various forms of torture, tried and murdered, along with other women they named. The events are now thought to be tied to mass hysteria and religious paranoia.
In 1630 Colonial America believed that Satan was everywhere.
The Witch begins ten years after the Mayflower landed bringing Puritans from persecution in England to begin a new religious order. A preacher is tried and found guilty of having the sin of pride and he and his family are banished from the Plymouth Plantation. They strike out into the wilderness and settle on the edge of a forest.
The eldest daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) has a rebellious and wilful nature. She and her three siblings have been told to stay out of the woods but she takes them there to look for apples.
They talk about their prior life in England. “Do you remember we had glass windows?” But something strange happens and when they come back, a pall falls over the family.
Thomasin plays with baby Jacob by the forest, and in a blink of the eye, he disappears. The toddler twins say they saw a witch run off with him. Only the audience sees the evil that befalls the child.
Then the crops fail and starvation sets in. The second born Caleb suffers seizures they interpret as possession.
The twins befriend a large black ram they call Black Phillip, and claim he talks to them. A rabbit the father has been unable to catch turns up as a mocking, bewitching presence.
Soon the family members are accusing each other of being in league with the devil.
The Witch is as chilling as it gets. The story is told so effectively it seems organic and real and illustrates the nature of evil. The dialogue is pure Colonial America, and it never falters and the look is stunningly beautiful. Every frame is art.
Mark Korven’s simple, sometimes dissonant score of heightened natural sounds and fiddle seems authentic, and raises the hair on the back of your neck, it’s beautiful and fearsome by turns.
Egger’s skilled filmmaking has created the first masterpiece of the year. It’s a remarkable debut. He’s currently working on a remake of Nosferatu and a “medieval epic” called The Knight.
Note: The Witch was co-produced by Chris Columbus and shot in Mattawa, Ontario. And game of Thrones stars Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie play Thomasin’s parents.