The Witch (2015)

Robert Eggers | 1hr 32min

There have been countless artistic depictions of 17th century Colonial America when religious superstition supplanted rationalism in Puritan culture, though the pure dread which seeps through The Witch’s gradual disintegration into madness manifests as something tangibly Satanic. While mistrust and self-preservation ultimately bring about the downfall of this exiled pilgrim family, there is also no doubt that there is something beyond their understanding that is staging paranormal acts of terror, intending to incite sinful actions. Among barren New England landscapes of withering trees and crude wooden shacks, Robert Eggers unfolds this folktale of horrific misfortune, blending occult mythology with eerily authentic renderings of the era.

In later films, Eggers would craft legends around demented lighthouse keepers and vengeful Vikings, curating intensely acute ventures into history with period-specific vernacular and authentic production design. To say that each progressive movie is bigger and madder than the last should not suggest any lack of ambition in The Witch, but rather that you can see the marks of a first-time filmmaker working out his artistic voice. His experience in production design is especially evident in the distressed fabric of Puritan costumes and the small family homestead, where slanted ceilings trap characters in claustrophobic, off-kilter compositions.

Slanted ceilings closing in on claustrophobic compositions.

With extensive research backing up his screenplay and visual design, Eggers also instils a strangely antiquated sort of realism into The Witch. It is there in the poetic Early Modern English dialogue, but also in the curses brought upon this rural family, from the ruined crops to the blood in the goat’s udder. Particularly impressive is how much Eggers integrates his mind for tactile detail into his direction on a holistic level – the soft lighting of rustic interiors through candles, the desaturated colours of bleak, natural scenery, and even the slow, barely perceptible dollying in on shots that seem to conceal some deeper horror beneath the surface.

Such painstaking detail in Eggers’ production design, building this 17th century New England homestead with great authenticity.

Mark Korven accompanies the terror and drama of The Witch with an ethereal vocal score, wavering in high-pitched discordant harmonies as if to represent the monster at the heart of the film on some aural, unseen level. We are often kept at a foreboding distance from its true visage, though Eggers doesn’t keep us waiting to confirm its presence in this narrative. Ten minutes into the film, right after baby Samuel is stolen, he carries out an eerie montage revealing it as a pale, naked creature participating in some kind of ritual sacrifice.

This isn’t a sprawling film, but it is worth savouring its bleak, desaturated landscapes, isolating this family on a barren rural farm.

Eggers manifests supernatural malevolence quite literally in The Witch, and yet at the same time it appears to represent something inherent in our characters’ sinful humanity. Suspicion within this Puritan family slowly turns into vengeful wrath, so much so that at a certain point one must draw comparisons to Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible as a key influence, which turned accusations of witchcraft from this era of American history into an allegory for the Red Scare. Mass hysteria effectively turns innocents against each other in both pieces of fiction, distracting them from the greater threats to the foundational liberty upon which this young nation is being built.

Thick darkness smothering pale, illuminated figures, making for powerful imagery.

The entire family here is well-drawn in their characterisations, but it is Thomasin, the daughter played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is especially fascinating in the way she straddles sin and virtue, placing her at the centre of their accusations. She has the greatest motive to bring them down, as she overhears her parents’ plans to send her away, though we also see the ways in which she too is targeted by forces beyond her understanding.

Such gripping dramatic tension in The Witch does well to sustain its underlying horror throughout, as the unseen evil maliciously targets the weaknesses of individuals to bring them down as a whole unit. Along with these characters to whom we have attached our own sanity, we too are grinded down to the point of submission, unable to apply full reason to the situation. At the end of that path though, once the rigid constraints of Puritan culture have been diminished, there is ironically a new liberty to be found – a liberty which moves beyond the bonds of colonial America, and which can finally revel in the release of morbid chaos.

A haunting, macabre ending, featuring what might be becoming a trademark shot for Eggers – the silhouette in front of a ritualistic bonfire.

The Witch is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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