The Witch: Life’s a Witch, Then You Die, by Ian Brill
Robert Eggers makes his feature writing and directing debut in The Witch, after a career in production and costume design. With its uncompromising pace and tone, The Witch declares that Eggers is a talent to keep an eye on.
Set in puritan New England, it follows a family that has been cast out of their community. They live off the land in a cabin, which itself is in the shadow of an immense forest. The family was not cast out for being suspected of witchcraft, but rather for practicing a form of Christianity that was too severe even for Puritans. Ralph Ineson is the William, the patriarch. Ineson’s distinct gravelly voice and Yorkshire accent is known to fans of the U.K. The Office, as well as his work in Game of Thrones and the latter Harry Potter films. His voice is the first thing you hear and it makes an impression, but the first thing you see if Anya Taylor-Joy’s face, playing Thomasin. She’s the eldest child of this family of seven, and watches as a tribunal decides her family’s fate.
Eggers is telling a very focused story, but the imagery he chooses is brilliantly layered. We are introduced to this world from the face of a young, almost-teenage girl but her presence is wrapped up by the world of men, both this tribunal and her father’s voice. It’s the first example of how the film explores what is just under the surface in this stratified society.
Despite its title, The Witch does not do a lot. She doesn’t have to. She only has to make a few decisive moves, and this family soon starts turning on each other. The family’s baby is stolen while under Thomasin’s watch, and soon paranoia and pain soon starts to grow. The sequence depicting what The Witch does with the baby is deeply disturbing, but filmed with a beauty and grace that the audience will have a hard time choosing between revulsion and fascination. It’s such an affecting scene that the audience is kept on edge throughout. Eggers’ mastery over imagery only grows more powerful from there.
Soon after the baby’s kidnapping, William brings the eldest son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), hunting. It’s a man’s adventure but Caleb learns from his father that some of their tools are financed by selling a prized silver cup of the family’s mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), without her knowledge. This is masculine agency, built on the foundation of female betrayal. A hare is spotted, and William takes aim with his rifle to shoot out, his boy by his side. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoot this hare so that its eyes seem to bug-out with psychotic fierceness and it stares the rifle down. This moment of father-son bonding literally blows up in William’s face. Between its visual portrayal and seemingly magical ability to make firearms malfunction, the audience learns that this hare is an avatar for The Witch. It’s a perfect choice. This is a nature-dwelling creature underestimated and victimized by man’s society. It is now a sign of doom, one that reappears throughout the film.
Mark Korven’s score is effectively percussive. See this in a theater with a good sound system and you’ll feel rumbling beneath your feet. This score matches the film’s themes. Deep in these characters are fears of sex, fears of nature, fears of children and therefore being a failure as a parent. Prayers is used to submerge these neuroses, but it’s not enough. Eggers has the family turn against each other not unlike how the men in John Carpenter’s The Thing do, but there is a unique type of terror to being the crosshairs of one’s own family. Generations are in conflict, and Eggers’ tone wrings all the drama and stress possible out of such heartbreak.
Eggers’ meticulousness, no doubt honed in his former job, is the source of this film’s strength. The way shots are framed and lit, often by candle light, feel like a combination of the approach Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining and that he used in Barry Lyndon. The dialogue is period-accurate, but always precise. The film has a slow and deliberate tone, but all executed under a short running time (90 minutes). Within this carefully constructed environment, the audience is treated to powerful performances by two talented young actors. Taylor-Joy handles being the film’s center wonderfully, exhibiting both the authority of an eldest child and the struggle of young womanhood in this society. Scrimshaw, the eldest boy, does excellent work as someone unsure of what is happening with his family. A supernatural occurrence changes the course of his character, and he definitely brings what is required to make such a transformation work.
By exploring deeply felt interior pain with such a deft touch, The Witch exemplifies the vitality of excellent horror filmmaking.