Something wicked this way comes in The Witch, a fiercely ambitious 17th century-set horror flick that marks the exceedingly confident debut of director Robert Eggers. (Eggers won the Directing Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.) Steeped in historical accuracy and meticulously rendered by a top tier team of designers and artisans, The Witch (going by the subtitle “A New England Folktale”) proves the flexibility of horror conventions and manages to incorporate and rouse serious questions regarding faith and family- not bad for a movie that on it’s most base level dwells with black magic hidden the woods surrounding a New England farm.
Set in the 1630s, a few decades before the fervor of the Salem Witch Trials, Eggers uncorks a worthy mystery. One that is shrouded in rich atmosphere, moody visuals, complex characterizations and a scope that’s tinged with ambiguity at nearly every turn. More so, The Witch presents so persuasively a sense of a time and place- every nook of the delicately constructed farmhouse adds dimension to the struggles of its characters; every bonnet looks authentic down to the stitch. The look of the film notwithstanding, one of the first things that viewers are likely to notice about The Witch is its language. Scripted in the arched rhythms of yore- Eggers sculpted his original screenplay reportedly from written accounts of the time- and stocked with stylized (and sometimes theatrical) dialogue and peppered with righteous speeches, the film quickly asserts itself as something uncommonly intelligent and special. It may take a few beats to connect with, but patient moviegoers have a wicked treat in store.
The Witch opens quite brazenly as uber-pious patriarch William (Ralph Ineson, best known likely as Dagmer Cleftjaw on Game of Thrones) lectures extensively on God’s will before he and his family are banished from their New England plantation. The root cause of why is never explained but one of the virtues of Egger’s work here is how free it is of exposition and how he and his team milk The Witch‘s slim screen time to maximum chilly effect with ever attempting to over-explain information to its audience. Forced to relocate to a farm on the outskirts with his sober wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, another Game of Thrones alum) and five children, William and clan has little solace except for their faith…that is until terrible and mysterious events start to occur and further drive a wedge between each and every one of them.
A first blow strikes the family right out of the gates as infant Samuel goes missing to the neighboring woods; a search proves fruitless. It may seem as though Eggers is showing his cards right away, but the movie is far less interested in traversing the conventional route. Instead, it’s the family dynamics that became more and more complicated just as it becomes apparent there’s some sort of evil afoot. Katherine becomes inconsolable at the thought of the un-baptized Samuel’s soul forced to hell while William, the more pragmatic of the duo attempts to keep the family afloat in any way possible. Eldest daughter and supple-shaped Thomasin (a bewitching Anya Taylor-Joy) is an easy scapegoat for the family, especially from the harsh Katherine. Industrious son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and impish mops Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) themselves may play accomplices as well. Horror troupes and blood-milked goats aside, The Witch marks a credible kitchen sink domestic drama in its own right as the film explores how even the most devout of families can turn sour in the face of tragedy and othering. The added and nuanced layers that surround The Witch makes it feel like The Crucible as if directed by Stanley Kubrick with a few cues from Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon cribbed for texture.
All of which builds to a mesmerizing and thrillingly unnerving final act. A harrowing display where faith and family is tested in a violent and wholly unexpected set of sequences concluding to a coda that will likely prove the films’ most divisive moments. None of this would be possible- in fact, the whole affair would be downright silly- without the first-rate ensemble that navigates the tricky high-wire energy of The Witch. Ineson and Dickie both commit gravely to tough roles while the young children in the piece more than hold their own. The breakout and discovery of The Witch surely must be Taylor-Joy’s singularly electric turn as the complexly drawn Thomasin (a perfectly named character). By turns playful, virtuous and menacing, Taylor-Joy (who is set to appear late this year in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split) gives a star-making performance.
Which goes on a long into saying that The Witch is an engrossing, elegantly mounted thriller with tremendous atmosphere to burn. Craig Laithrop’s meticulous production design is staggeringly well thought out, but hardly a museum piece- each ripple of the farmhouse and stock of rotting corn looks and feels utterly lived-in if just slightly amiss as if to subtly disarm the audience into a sense of doom. Jarin Blaschke’s muted cinematography sets an enticing and entrancing mood just as Mark Korven’s score strikes an unnerving chord. Eggers is less interested in cheap jump scares (though the film features a few terrifying thrills) but in underlying a serene sense of mischief, possibility and the horrors of the mind. While the scope sometimes feels a bit just out of reach and the film from time to time is a tad too elliptical for its own good, The Witch marks a tremendous show of confidence for a first-time feature director (Eggers is next expected to tackle a reboot of Nosferatu).
A Horror New Wave seems afoot as recent arthouse spookers like The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and It Follows have all effectively, elegantly and evocatively synthesized high-minded themes with moody chills. The Witch, Robert Eggers’ beautifully made and dazzlingly realized chamber piece, sits handily alongside those recent entries and makes a passionate case of discovery for a fresh filmmaking voice; it’s pretty incredible that The Witch marks his feature directorial debut. With expert and ambitiously detailed attention spent on period authenticity, The Witch is a rare suspense movie that manages to feel creepy and genuinely lived-in all at once. A gorgeous and terrifying treat.