The Witch is an atmospheric, thought-provoking, and visceral tale thanks to precise filmmaking that’s bolstered by great performances.
New England, 1630. Upon threat of banishment by the church, an English farmer leaves his colonial plantation, relocating his wife and five children to a remote plot of land on the edge of an ominous forest – within which lurks an unknown evil.
In my observation, there are two main types of horror films today: the first capitalizes on moment-to-moment shock to satisfy viewers who just want instant gratification, while the second prefers to deliver a slow-burning creepfest for the selective moviegoer. Roger Eggers, who wrote and directed The Witch, has created something unique for the latter.
The brilliance of this film lies in its execution. The set-up is simple: an exiled family settles in a patch of land next to a forest. But there’s something quite off – that piece of land looks lifeless and that forest stoke a fear of the unknown rather than curiosity. True enough, The Witch does not waste time and delivers a tragedy early on. What follows next is a series of inexplicable hardships and events. When their life isn’t threatened by these occurrences, their sanity is challenged. The family’s belief in their faith and each other fall apart as their idyllic existence is filled with claustrophobic dread.
The movie uses sparse visual effects and relies on filmmaking elements to help the slow-burning plot. The detailed production design paints period accurate and lived-in set pieces. The cinematography (shot in the rare 1:1.66 ratio and with mostly natural light) along with camera work provide a well-defined world and subtle yet engaging scenes. The sound design, a combination of creepy chorals and shrieking strings, effectively heighten that sense of dread and amplify the creepy imagery.
In between these moments, The Witch takes the opportunity to say something more than a family going batshit crazy. It’s not clear who is the protagonist of the story but most of it concerns Thomasin. Soon enough she bears the brunt of her family’s anxieties to the point that her parents intend to get rid of her to serve another family. But it should be noted that the characters are not judged by their actions and blamed. The movie reveals the flaws in their close-minded beliefs. The family’s emotional turmoil clashes with their rigid religious convictions until eventually, fear leads to doubt which turns to anger, until it spirals into hysteria.
Without relying on CGI, it’s up to the characters to suspend our belief. The whole cast delivers great performances. Ralph Ineson delivers a stern and serious William, but you can also see that he is a well-meaning and self-deluded patriarch. Kate Dickie lends Katherine enough vulnerability and resentment to provide more dimensions to a grieving mother. Anya Taylor-Joy makes a memorable Thomasin on the verge of womanhood, innocent yet also sly when needed. Harvey Scrimshaw makes a believable Caleb, who’s good-hearted but still susceptible.
All of this makes for a solid movie but it appeals to a certain kind of audience.
Technically it’s not a horror movie but a psychological thriller*. It’s ambiguities don’t always have satisfying conclusions and intentionally obscures the truth. The Witch prefers to tease that something wicked this way comes – including borrowed imagery from occult lore – for a big chunk of the film, which will disappoint viewers who rather have moment-to-moment horror of today’s flicks. The movie strives to be a metaphor for religious intolerance and coming of age but people who just want to be scared don’t have time for these heady notions. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is hard to follow because it’s based on historical documents.
Viewers who have a long attention span, are fascinated by history, and appreciate the technical aspects of filmmaking however, will find a satisfying a movie. It takes advantage of a fertile mind to imagine the atrocities committed, while the lingering sense of the unknown makes everything unpredictable and the extent of dangers unknowable.
In the end as Thomasin is finally released from her parent’s suppressive moral universe, The Witch reveals the hollow promises of old-fashioned values and man’s doomed efforts to conquer nature, as well as stand as an allegory of disenfranchisement of oppressed women.
Taken as a whole, the movie just reworks tired tropes through sophisticated filmmaking, but there is no doubt that The Witch is an impressive movie with a subversive feminist statement.
My Rating: 8.5/10
*Brian Collins has a number of good points showing that The Witch is a horror movie not a psychological thriller. I stand corrected.