Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
I have been slightly obsessed with films distributed by A24 lately, and when I first caught wind of The Witch about four or so months ago, I was thrilled. Truthfully, I am not one for horror films, but something about this one grabbed my attention.
The film is set in colonial New England, where a family of seven is banished from their plantation due to an apparent religious dispute. Led by a fundamentalist Puritan father, they must learn to fend for themselves on the edge of a vast and foreboding forest.
We watch as a family descends into madness, apparently at the hand of the devil. The eldest daughter (Thomasin) is accused of being a witch; the mother (Katherine) loses her mind; the father (William) loses both his authority and sense of morality. William stresses to his children that every human being has been born into sin and must repent to avoid the fiery depths of hell.
But soon after moving to their secluded farm by the woods, the family begins to succumb to the supernatural. Before too long, the wilderness becomes hell on Earth. Sure the symbolism is laid on pretty thick, but omens like the goat and rabbit give the story a biblical feel that compliment the film nicely.
I had assumed The Witch would fall along the same lines as Dogtooth and Martha Marcy May Marlene, films that feature isolated families under the control of a father figure, the hyper-masculine antagonist. But I was very mistaken. In fact, it is the feminine that rules within The Witch. Thomasin and Katherine claim autonomy from William relatively early on. Both she and her mother criticize William and threaten his place as head of household. Katherine does not approve of William’s decision to move their family to the woods and makes it clear that she wishes to return home. Thomasin, in a fit of rage, points out her father’s failure to provide a harvest and accuses him of sin.
Thomasin’s and Katherine’s characters are not the only feminine forces within the film. The surrounding wilderness, the land itself, is feminine by nature. We know from the beginning that there is “evil in the wood,” or an element of the supernatural. William assures his son, Caleb: “We will conquer this wilderness. We will not be consumed by it.” In other words, man will conquer the wild, the free (and arguably, the female).
Of course, William fails to tame the spirits of the wood. But is he demise caused by the Devil? or is the family’s destruction self-inflicted? Depending if your perspective is spiritual, historical or psychological (or a combination of the three) your answers may be entirely different.
The cinematography creates intimacy in an expansive environment; the camera lures us into the with Twin Peaks-ish shots, zooming in on looming trees. Tight, purposeful shots frame the family. But there are plenty of beautiful wide shots of the wilderness as well, allowing our eyes to explore the landscape. A24 definitely knows how to support gifted cinematographers like Jarin Blaschke (The Witch, I Believe in Unicorns) and Daniel Landin (Under the Skin) as well as Robbie Ryan (Ginger & Rosa, Fish Tank).
All in all, The Witch is more folklore than horror, like a fairytale thriller. Some scenes are deliciously gory, but the majority of the film is still and dramatic. If you went into the theater expecting to be terrified, you probably walked into the wrong movie. The dialog (and dialect) is authentic—almost to the point of needing subtitles— but in case you missed anything, The Witch is worth a second watch. While this film will most likely not keep you up at night, it will certainly stick with you, and it will keep you asking questions.