The Witch Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriter: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Distributor: A24 Films
Rated R | 93 Minutes
Release Date: February 19, 2016
Written and directed by Robert Eggers, The Witch is an exquisitely crafted exercise in dread. Set in 17th century New England, the film stars Ralph Ineson as William, a Puritan farmer who, upon threat of banishment by the church, must leave his colonial plantation.
He relocates his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their children to a secluded plot of land on the edge of the wilderness. Unsettling things begin to happen — the crops rot, goats give blood instead of milk, and the youngest child disappears as another becomes possessed by an unknown evil. With suspicion and paranoia mounting, the grief-stricken family accuses Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest daughter, of witchcraft.
The Witch is an atmospheric slow burn punctuated by intense moments of horror. Eggers explores the illusion of sin and how, when challenged, deep-seated religious convictions can give way to mass hysteria. In the way Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is an allegory of McCarthyism, Eggers’ film is using witchcraft to talk politics – specifically conservative extremists and their reactionary views.
And like The Crucible, most of the characters in The Witch are lying – if not to others, then to themselves. To quiet her little sister, Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Thomasin tells her she is the witch of the wood, and that she will gobble her up if she continues to misbehave. This is a lie of course, but it plants a seed of doubt in Mercy’s mind that spreads to her twin brother, Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and the rest of the family.
And then there’s the matter of Black Phillip, a billy goat who lives a comfortable life on the family farm. The twins begin having long conversations with the goat, who – they say – confirms that Thomasin has made a covenant with Satan by signing the Devil’s book. If The Witch were just an allegory for paranoia it would be intriguing, but it’s more than that. It embraces the existence of the supernatural in the same way William Friedkin’s The Exorcist does – it makes you believe.
What makes The Witch so special, aside from the mesmerizing cinematography by Jarin Blaschke and spine-tingling score by Mark Korven, is that it actually delivers on its premise. In a landscape of PG-13 horror movies glutted with jump scares and computer-generated blood, Eggers’ film is fucking scary. It shows how a simple suggestion can test the fragility of an entire faith, and to what lengths a disciple would go to prove themselves to a god – or a devil.
As for the film’s climax, this isn’t The Village or some other cheap cop-out ending where the film cuts to black mid-scene or offers up a vague “is it or isn’t it?” finale. Eggers’ unhurried unfolding of the events builds to a crescendo that is as horrific as it is intoxicating. It gets under your skin; days after seeing it, my mind wanders back to that remote plot of land at the edge of the forest and the delicious horrors that await upon a second (or third) viewing.
With a star-making performance by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch is one of the best horror films of the modern era. Richly detailed and steeped in authenticity, this grim folktale serves as a window into our past – and a reminder that, nearly four centuries later, we are still motivated (and manipulated) by fear and paranoia. There will always be a witch hunt.