By Hunter Berry
The Witch isn’t your run-of-the-mill horror movie. This slow-burning piece of cinema is a fresh step in the right direction and a meritorious debut for writer and director, Robert Eggers. While many won’t find this film to be as enticing as it was advertised to be, those who stick through the sometimes tough language and slow-building moments will ultimately be pleased. New England folktales, especially those involving witches, are gruesome tales, and this film is nothing short of just that. It is a gruesome and sometimes troubling experience that you just can’t look away from, no matter how hard you try.
The Witch is a beautifully shot, period-authentic folktale about a Puritan family forced to leave the safety of a New England plantation. They wander off into the harsh and unsettling wilderness to find land. The father, William (Ralph Ineson), and mother, Katherine (Katie Dickie), are strict God-fearing people who spend most of their time praying or reciting scripture. Their daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the eldest, and also our main character in the story. She receives the brunt of the workloads and is in charge of keeping the other children in line. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is Thomasin’s younger sibling, along with twins Mercy and Jonas, and newborn infant Samuel.
Our Puritan family soon stumbles across a patch of land lying on the cusp of a thick wooded area. They quickly build and settle-in to farm and start fresh. The unsettling nature of this film hits us quite quickly though, as Samuel is kidnapped right from under Thomasin’s nose. We are then introduced to the witch and see how horrendous she truly is. The family searches for Samuel for some time, but they are forced to give up and assume either the wolves or hunger got to him. Katherine is absolutely devastated and spends a good portion of her time crying and begging God to allow her son into Heaven. It is a brutally dark part of the film and this seems to be a motif in The Witch. Caleb begins questioning his father about sin and those born into it. He is concerned for his late infant brother and the possibility that he could be burning eternally in hell. William does his best to comfort his son, but ultimately gives it to him straight and declares that they can’t know for sure the fate of their lost loved one. They can only pray that God accepts him. I absolutely loved these existential questions brought into the story. It really grounded the characters and asked the audience to feel that level of uncertainty, despite any religious affiliations we may have.
Although this family is tested, they are forced to move on, which turns out to be more difficult than they had thought. Their fields aren’t yielding the crops they had hoped for and they are forced to scour the woods to trap and kill their food. This leads us to some sensational one-on-one dialogue between William and his son Caleb. Eventually Caleb takes it upon himself to go out hunting one night. Without spoiling too much, it ends with an absolutely haunting scene involving Caleb and our witch.
I’d like to leave the remainder of the film a mystery so that you can experience the horror and dread that quickly ensues for yourself. The remainder of the film revolves around Thomasin attempting to keep her family together as things begin to unravel and dark forces corrupt their lives. This isn’t your lovable Disney folktale about magical witches in a forest. The Witch is a disturbing and often exhausting film filled with existential anxieties and sporadic moments of ultraviolence. It remains authentic to 1630’s New England and the Puritan ways of life. The dialogue may be tough to digest at times, and the film crawls at a slow pace towards it’s climactic ending, which can be off-putting for many. However, if you can persevere and follow along, The Witch will reward you with believable acting and plenty of memorable scenes to talk about on your ride home.
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