Genre: Horror, Mystery
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
The state of horror films always seems to be in a constant state of flux. Each year brings a new batch that are lauded as the “next generation of horror” but ultimately they do very little to add to the genre. The Witch is something different. It’s possible to argue that the film doesn’t even belong in the genre, it’s marketing might have sold it as a horror but it all depends on how you interpret this eerie folktale that will define its genre placement.
Robert Eggers’ debut feature follows a family of strict Christians who are banished from their New English community after William’s (Ralph Ineson) wayward religious preaching causes friction within the community. The family make camp on the edges of a creepy forest that ominously towers over their dwelling and it doesn’t take long for things to go wrong. Their youngest, Samuel, goes missing during a game of peekaboo, their crops fail and their dog is brutally murdered, leading the family down a bleak path. Is it God punishing William for his sins? Or is it their eldest, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), in cahoots with the Devil?At first it feels like the film has blown its load too early when it reveals a mysterious being in the woods but Eggers soon steers the film in a different direction, centring everything on the metaphorical rather than the physical. Focusing instead on the family’s obsession with sin and their slow corruption by an unknown evil. It’s this concentration on the psychological and emotional breakdown of the family that offers up the truest depiction of evil, Religion. The thing William holds up as the pinnacle of good is the architect for their downfall into madness, moulding their minds and rendering any common sense useless as their beliefs start to eat away at them. It all conspires to create a perfectly crafted, sometimes unsettling but always captivating folktale that never puts a foot wrong.
Everything from Mark Korven’s score to Linda Muir’s hand stitched costumes converges together to create an authentically imaginative take on the rich lore of witchcraft. The film’s old English dialogue may put some off – the director lifted much of the dialogue from authentic diary entries and original folktales – but Eggers’ commitment to realism is one of the film’s many achievements. Every aspect of the film has been meticulously thought over, not surprising with Eggers’ experience in theatre, proving that the devil isn’t only in the ovine but also in the detail.Ralph Ineson puts in a powerhouse performance whether he is chopping wood topless or praying, he commands the screen with his deep northern tones doing a lot of the work for him. While Kate Dickie’s performance as Katherine, William’s wife, is a perfect depiction of a bereaved mother whose soul is being slowly twisted out of the place. The children do more than hold their own with Harvey Scrimshaw’s magnetic performance as the inquisitive Caleb who comes close to stealing the show on more than one occasion and Taylor-Joy, who anchors the film as the possible cause of all the misfortune.
But the real star of the film is Eggers. For a debut feature, the young director displays a solid style behind the camera, somehow capturing shots of beauty in a bleak surrounding with naturally lit compositions. Suck on that Alejandro. The decision to shoot in 1:66:1 ratio pays off, allowing the woods to take on a life of their own as a stationary character that proves to be as important as the characters that it overshadows. Also, the director’s decision to opt for well crafted dread, just the simple noise of trees rustling is enough to send shivers down your spine, rather than simplistic jump scares proves that horror is more than just cattle prodding. The ambiguous climax will undoubtedly leave some unsatisfied but it serves as a perfectly crafted ending to a fever dream of a film, that is ripe with interpretation and never too keen on giving you all the answers.
So, we are left pondering on exactly what The Witch is. Is it a study on the effect of evil on good people? Is it an attempt to display the darker side of religion? Or is it all a hallucinogenic nightmare? That’s the beauty of it all; it’s left up to you to decide.