From its first moments, The Witch strands us in a hostile land. We watch (because that’s all we can do, helplessly) as puritan patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) argues stubbornly with a small council, thereby causing his family’s banishment from their “New England” community. William welcomes the punishment, because it affirms his religious zealotry: We don’t know the cause of the disagreement between William and the other local leaders, but its shades of disagreement over “proper” Christian practice reawakens the self-righteousness that must have first driven the man and his family from England not long before. Beaming with pride, William packs up his wife, kids, belongings and various farm animals onto their creaking wagon, heading to a foreboding wood outside the quickly shuttered gates of the community.
We watch, and writer-director Robert Eggers holds our gaze while a score of strings and assorted prickly detritus—much like the dialogue-less beginning to There Will be Blood—rise to a climax that never comes. It’s a long shot, breathing dread: The wagon lurches ever-on into the wilderness, piling the frontier of this New World upon the literal frontier of an unexplored forest. It’s 1620, and William claims, “We will conquer this wilderness.”
The film fast-forwards. They’ve planted corn, raised a small herd of goats, and built a suitable home—not only has the family remade this land in their image, they’ve succeeded in “conquer”ing “this wilderness” through the power of God, who gave them such agency over Nature in His own image. That is, until oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, near perfect in this role) up and “loses” her infant brother one day during an otherwise normal game of peekaboo. There are less than holy forces at work.
Eggers’ “New England Folk Tale” is a horror film swollen with the allure of the unknown. To say that it’s reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials, which take place 70 years after the events in the film, would be an understatement—the inevitable consequences of such historic mania looms heavily over The Witch. But whereas most fiction surrounding the Witch Trials (most notably Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) focuses on the power of hysteria to convince even the most pragmatic people that such nonsense is true, Eggers chooses to dig deeper, questioning the bedrock of such hysteria.
The circumstances surrounding the baby’s disappearance are mysterious, of course—a simple trick of editing on Eggers part—but instead of leaving the truth of Thomasin’s witch-like inclinations up for debate, keeping us wondering whether or not she’s hiding more sinister secrets, Eggers then takes his camera into a fairy-tale-like hovel out in the middle of the woods. There, a naked, wrinkly crone does to the baby exactly what we’d hoped would not happen to the baby. And in that moment, within the film’s first 15 minutes, Eggers shows us the titular threat, taking a mortar and pestle to all Witch Trials allusions, grinding them to a pulp. The “unknown” is no longer whether actual evil exists or not—the “unknown” is why that evil should even exist at all.
All of this Eggers frames with a subconscious knack for creating tension within each shot, rarely relying on jump scares or gore, instead mounting suspense through one masterful edit after another. The effect, then, is that of a building fever dream in which primeval forces—lust, defiance, hunger, greed—simmer at the edges of experience, avoided but never quite conquered. There’s oldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) on the cusp of puberty, who can’t help but steal glimpses of his older sister’s barely-exposed skin, who later, wracked with existential worry, questions his father about whether or not his unbaptized baby brother will go to Hell. There’s wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) drowned by grief, willing almost too readily to believe that her family has been cursed by God for her husband’s disobedience to their community’s leaders and religious doctrine. There is Thomasin unable to reconcile her teen angst with the strictures of her heritage, becoming a woman amidst a burgeoning society incapable of catering to one. There is pressure intensifying in this family simply because they are human.
At the end of the film, a title card reveals that most of the film’s dialogue and events were lifted wholesale from actual 17th century accounts and manuscripts. That, combined with some flawless art direction, lends The Witch a well-balanced realism, especially when the supernatural, more than just implied in the early reveal of the supposed “witch,” really starts to take hold. But what’s most convincing is the burden of puritanical spirituality which blankets the film’s every single moment, a pall through which every character—especially Thomasin—struggles to be, simply, a regular person. There is no joy in their worship, there is only gravitas: prayers, fasting, penitence and fear. And it’s that fear which drives the film’s horror, which eventually makes even us viewers believe that, at the fringes of civilization, at the border of the unknown, God has surely abandoned these people.
Though The Witch ends as it must—not, it should be noted, with a “twist,” because the stakes had already been set from the first moment we knew the titular monster to be real—it’s an ending which, while resting on a striking final image, tips almost too readily into the supernatural elements so much of the film tries for so much of its run-time to delicately avoid. There is a goat named Black Philip, there is blood, there is the line you will quote for weeks after seeing it. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” It’s a fair question—because of course thou would. Because even if The Witch implies that the mortal fear to which its characters prescribe in the face of such real evil makes plenty sense, Eggers still doesn’t buy that the puritanical hysteria at the heart of America’s founding was anything reasonable. Why does this evil exist at all? When the alternative is so dehumanizing, why doesn’t it?
Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers
Starring: Ralph Ineson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
Release Date: February 19, 2016
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.