Our pop culture has a strange and ambivalent relationship with witches. While they enjoy their spot in our horror rogues’ gallery, they’re saddled with the rational point-of-view of modern audiences in a way that vampires and werewolves aren’t. We look down on superstitious Puritans who cry “Witch! Witch! Burn her!” while simultaneously liking the idea of witches existing and being worthy of fear.
Robert Eggers’ The Witch wants it both ways too, although it’s intentional and thoughtful about it. The film calls itself “A New-England Folktale” and makes clear from early on that the witch is real and evil. From there, Eggers pulls the more overt horror elements back a little bit, leaving a film that is more character-driven and unsettling than a venue for jump scares.
Our central characters, being too hardcore in their theology for their fellow 17th century Puritans, strike out on their own to homestead in the New England wilderness. What follows is a portrait of a family crumbling. While the witch’s initial act of violence is fleeting, it looms over the rest of the film, causing despair, paranoia and crises of faith. Supernatural evil is clearly at play, but it relies on its victims to do much of its work. Thanks to The Witch’s spare approach we are shown just enough to throw us off balance, casting seemingly banal events in a sinister light. Are the crops failing because those are the breaks when living in the wilderness? Or is the family cursed? Is this squabble the product of sibling rivalry? Or is there something darker going on? Are all of these things true at the same time?
This is Eggers’ first feature and an assured debut it is. The cinematography is gorgeous and Eggers’ background in production design shines through. The Witch may be a folktale, but it has a thoroughly modern “gritty” aesthetic that feels fully earned and natural. These are people suffering through rough times and the setting reflects this. It feels dirty, cold and isolated, and it effectively grounds the supernatural goings on.
Eggers is well-served by a uniformly great cast and the film would be crippled without one. The dialogue is period appropriate and dense, but the actors deliver it naturally and sometimes beautifully. At times I found myself lost in the rhythms of the language and scrambling to decipher what was said, but I still consider that a point in the film’s favor. A particular standout is Ralph Ineson as William, the patriarch of the family and a religious zealot with a God-like voice*. It’s clear that he cares for his family and their happiness, but his pride drags them out into the middle of nowhere. It’s a nuanced take on a character who in a lesser film would be a fool or a monster.
Unfortunately, The Witch stumbles a bit in the end. The film is nearly fatalistic, continually building to something we know will be awful. Once that “something” arrives it’s appropriately dire, but after all that slow-burn it feels like the situation goes from zero to total clusterfuck in a matter of minutes. It’s usually considered praise to say that a film leaves you wanting more, but in this case I was left thinking, “That’s it?” What’s there is excellent, but it feels rushed in a distracting way.
However, I don’t want to linger on those final moments. This is a really, really good film, make no mistake. It’s a remarkable and unnerving debut from a promising new filmmaker and likely one of the best horror films of the year.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
*Seriously. It’s an amazing voice. I want his voice when I grow up.