What’s more terrifying than a Santanic witch? The life of a young girl in historical Puritan America.
The best kind of art reflects the human condition. Saying so might be screenwriting 101, but most horror movies nowadays miss the forest for the trees. They settle for going through the motions: jump scares are a dime a dozen, and Saw made a franchise out of elaborate fetishized torture. A horror film that exhumes the depths of individual cupability and holds its grotesque complexity to the light, that hovers in your mind days afterward, is rare.
I’m half-convinced black magic was involved in the making of The Witch, director Robert Eggers’s film debut, because no first movie should be this skilled, smart, and profoundly unsettling. It’s another staggering entry in the genre’s unofficial new wave (The Babadook, It Follows), and harkens back to the 1970s and ’80s when horror lived up to its name.
Set in 17th century New England, only decades before the Salem Witch Trials, a deeply religious family self-exile themselves from their plantation over a difference of beliefs. Led by patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), they try to make a new home in the barren wilderness near a forest. After an ominous game of peek-a-boo, their newborn son disappears — kidnapped by the titular witch, and what happens to him is unthinkable. Soon afterward the crops die, the deadly winter encroaches, and the family disintegrates as fear, confusion, and paranoia seize hold.
At the center of the conflict is the family’s eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). On the cusp of adulthood, Thomasin undergoes the same emotional upheavel as most girls nearing adolescence, but without the freedom of self-discovery. Part of it’s due to location: she remembers England and its bright apples, but her new American home is desaturated and solemn with only corn to eat. The rest is herself — she’s out of place, and feels isolated from her own family. Her mother Mary blames Thomasin for the loss of the baby, snipes at her over a trivial silver cup and shows more affection to her other children. Thomasin toils in the fields day after day to earn parental recognition, helps tend the house and look after her rambunctious siblings, and for it all learns her parents plan to sell her to another family. She’s a wearied outsider held hostage in a time when outliers weren’t permitted, praying for forgiveness for her impure thoughts because the only sins she’s capable of committing are internal. When she lies about being the witch of the woods, said in a moment of frustration, an misguided attempt to claim a moment of power over her sister, the consequences spiral.
Ultimately, Thomasin is blamed for the family’s misfortunes. It’s her fault her brother’s eyes are wandering over her growing breasts, and Mary mentions Thomasin’s first menstruation with disgust. Her feminine wiles have ruined them; she’s whored herself to Satan. Yes, the devil himself is haunting the family, but like the accused in Salem, Thomasin is a victim of circumstance, religious hysteria, and misogyny.
It’s harrowing. A life deprived of choice, where the smallest act of rebellion evokes condemnation. If a woman exercises her individuality, fails to adhere to what the patriarchal order has dictated as her worth and purpose, she falls under accusations of sorcery. Even more harrowing is the knowledge that the demonization of women for acts of self-expression happened. The Witch is as much a tour of American history and spirituality as it is a fantasy. Very real women were murdered in the name of righteous fanaticism, and that demonization is still common in today’s world if a woman dares defy the expectation set down by society.
Much like The Wicker Man, from which Eggers draws tone, texture, and story inspiration, the real horror here is that which mankind’s bigotry can work. A witch does terrible things, but the root cause of the devastation is a family’s blind devotion to closeminded dogma and their panicked lack of empathy. There doesn’t even need to be a witch; the supernatural element is an enhancement of the humanistic themes, a format for their presentation. The exquisite attention to detail, with sections of dialogue lifted straight from period documents, makes fear tangible.
We could be seeing something real. It almost feels wrong to watch; as if we, by acting as witnesses, are also marked by an implacable evil.
At times The Witch almost feels like an Ingmar Bergman morality tale. Its concerns are psychological and atmospheric. If you want instant gratification scares, this isn’t for you. It demands patience. But this is what horror films should be. Although filled with perversely striking iconography, it flourishes in suggestion, the unexplained, and an inescapable sense of mounting terror. I haven’t seen a movie infused with such stifling dread since The Shining. The slow-burn pace is excruciating, the ending almost unbearable.
That ending, from a brief glimpse online, has proved controversial. I’m still on the fence, especially in the context of the massacred innocents of Salem and beyond. It removed all ambiguity, but at the same time, it felt inevitable. It’s a decisive conclusion that stayed in my mind’s eye and filled the silences of my empty apartment for days. Eggers’s subtle weaving of modern feminist themes alongside a brutal dissection of old-world values became a dark statement of female empowerment.
To Eggers’s credit, Thomasin’s parents aren’t demons in human form. They’re simply human, well-intentioned but flawed. Ralph Ineson in particular embues William with a deep tenderness for his children. He’s not a one-dimensional villain, but a prideful man susceptible to ideals. His home falls apart because he fails to fulfill his patriarchal duties as provider and protector. Even their isolation is his fault, a consquence spun from his unspecified fight with his former community.
In turn wife and mother Mary (Kate Dickie) suffers a crisis of faith, as almost anyone would in her circumstance. She prays nonstop for her baby’s soul, because her Old Testament God would condemn even an innocent newborn to hell. If no one is guaranteed the safety of heaven, it’s understandable, if not conscionable, why their convictions push them to misinformed extremes.
In the world of The Witch, we’re all sinners in need of redemption. What matters is how we interpret our faith in the treatment of our fellow man.
Tasked with carrying the majority of this thematic heft is the young actress Anya Taylor-Joy, a one-in-a-million find. Without her astute, quiet performance, the movie wouldn’t sink its teeth into your skin (or demand you sink your teeth into it). Her doe eyes and demure presence embody the folklore nature of the setting; she’s a Puritan fairy tale heroine, except her bravey doesn’t hold steadfast, nor does her innocence remain intact.
I’m sick of dour movies. The “dark ‘n gritty, everything sucks, life is horrible” trend, while warranted for certain stories, is played out for me. Dark for darkness’s sake is so damn lazy, and doesn’t automatically make a good story. But if there’s one genre that allows wiggle room, it’s horror, and The Witch is the best kind of dark — captivating, challenging, mournful, substance executed with art house skill. A true haunting.