by Haley GoetzRobert Eggers blends fantasy and realism in a strikingly imaginative manner in The Witch, a film that is already being regarded as the horror film event of the 21st century. Eggers began his career as a production designer, and this becomes apparent in the carefully constructed sets and costumes as well as in the period-appropriate dialogue that was gleaned straight from firsthand accounts of this era (17th century). It is through this meticulous detail and heavily visual storytelling that Eggers is able to captivate and thoroughly terrify his audience.
The Witch is set in the 1630s, a time of devout Puritanical fervor and conformity. William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), are exiled from their New England settlement and sent to move to the American wilds with their five children — Thomasin (brought to life by the brilliant debut performance of Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and her twin brother Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and baby Samuel. Almost right away, chaos breaks loose in the swath of cleared-out land the family calls home. Samuel is snatched away from Thomasin during a game of peek-a-boo, and this is when the true paranoia sets in. I don’t want to give too much away, but many unexpected occurrences take place throughout this film that will leave even a seasoned horror fan cowering in their seat.
The most wonderful part about The Witch is the fact that the actual horror elements are rarely seen. The tension created from what isn’t seen, however, is what makes the transpiring events that much more powerful. Eggers toys with his audience, frugally dispensing sightings of the Witch herself. The few times he does decide to reveal her, it is both captivating and terrifying. Eggers also makes the refreshing visual choice of showing the Witch in different animal forms. By doing this, the audience comes to suspect evil of, and later be haunted by, “normal” appearances of fauna in the forest. That being said, the true horror of this film stems from the increasing levels of malicious questioning and hostility that Thomasin’s family directs toward her as the film progresses.
Katherine, the matriarch who manages the homestead, is a sight to behold. At first glance, she seems to be just another religious fanatic. But her extremism reaches new heights upon the disappearance of her unbaptised son, Samuel, and later, her older son, Caleb. The transformation her character undergoes changes the tone of the film tremendously, for it serves as a driving force behind the disintegration of the family.Ralph Ineson — with his deep voice and thick Yorkshire accent — plays a different type of patriarch that hasn’t been seen in many other films. His William is a man who is chastised by his wife for his flaws. In a way, he is almost a dependent of the women in his family rather than a strong individual who holds everyone together. In a noteworthy scene near the end of the film, William confesses his sins to the sky above. He berates himself for being so prideful as to cast his family out of the community, and this openness gives the audience a wholly new perspective on his character.
Anya Taylor-Joy shines in her role of Thomasin. Her character demonstrates the naiveté of childhood that also contains a spark of rebellion against the strictly religious upbringing she’s had. Rather than speaking, Taylor-Joy shows her emotive states through her eyes, thus bringing her audience straight into her visceral experience of living. The audience comes to understand what Thomasin is feeling and going through every step of the way along her transformative journey.
Robert Eggers hails from Lee, New Hampshire, which is the next town over from where I’m from. A lot of my friends have worked with Eggers on his earlier short films (adaptations of Hansel and Gretel and The Tell-Tale Heart, respectively). With this area as our common home, I understand where a lot of Eggers’s inspiration comes from. Folktales are an important part of growing up in New England, which is based predominantly in early Christianity. Fables were told to me from a young age, and the natural world becomes a point of fascination for children everywhere in New Hampshire. Fittingly, the director has mentioned in interviews that he was interested in the forest that bordered his house, and influenced by the numerous stories that are contained within the greater confines of New England’s variety of environments.
This film is not to be missed. I highly recommend seeing it in the cinema, as it is a picture that completely envelops the viewer (something that is hard to come by in modern horror cinema, especially). It’s also fulfilling to witness a young talent on the cusp of discovery, in the form of Anya Taylor-Joy in her breakthrough role of Thomasin. It is my hope that she will come to be honored with commendations for her performance, and I look forward to seeing where her career will take her. I’m also more than certain that this is just the beginning for Eggers. I can’t wait to see what other macabre concoctions he cooks up, and whether or not he will continue to draw inspiration from the place he and I call home.
4.5 out of 5 stars