It seems crazy to believe after having watched The Witch that this is the debut work of writer/director Robert Eggers, such is the sublime craftsmanship and screenplay. It is few and far between these days that we are treated to a truly original movie, one that gets under your skin and leaves you in something of a cold sweat for a long time after the end credits have rolled, but Eggers has achieved exactly that.
Set in 1600’s New England, a puritan family are banished from their town for what appears to be some sort religious squabble, though Eggers doesn’t dwell on this, instead using this opening sequence to establish the tone of the movie. With nowhere to go, the family, headed by Ralph Inseson, are forced to live in the wilderness, inhabiting a farm house sitting just outside of the woods. An English family who have moved to America in the hope of a better life, the family’s luck soon begins to worsen as their crops all begin to die and then their youngest child is kidnapped from right under their noses, during a game of a peekaboo with the family’s eldest daughter Thomasin. The mystery of who took the child though is, rather surprisingly revealed to us rather quickly, we see unthinkable acts being performed on the baby by a witch like figure, a haggard old woman who eventually grinds the child up before smearing herself in his blood.
So it would be appear as though the central mystery of the film has been solved, and the movie has its big bad, and in a lesser movie that would have certainly been the case, but Eggers is not going to give it up so easily. Soon the family all begin to doubt each other, the two younger children, Mercy and Jonas, who spend their days playing with a black goat called Black Phillip soon begin to tease Thomasin, suggesting that she has performed witchcraft and given her baby brother to the devil. Further events, which I will not discuss in detail here soon begin to toy with the very fabric of the movie’s reality. Mixing the supernatural with reality is a difficult task but Eggers handles it superbly, making us question just what is going on, what is real and what isn’t. The Witch takes its time establishing these elements, it’s a confident film that pays off and then some.
Subtitled ‘A New England Folk tale’ The Witch is a movie rich in detail. The dialogue has been lifted directly from letters and documents about witchcraft at the time, and the film’s set is a minor miracle considering the budget the movie was strung together on.The movie is a glorious mish mash of themes and influences, echoing the works of The Brothers Grimm and combining them with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, whilst also chucking in visual nods to movies like The Wicker Man. The film is a tough one to pin down, it is unique in pretty much every-way.
On a technical level the movie is also a knock-out. The performances across the board are phenomenal and the movie is beautifully shot. Framed using 1.66:1 ratio the film is taller and narrower than others and this adds a unique atmosphere to the whole affair. Eggers also has a keen eye for striking imagery, several scenes burn themselves into the retina of your eye, leaving a lasting effect long after the movie has finished. A sequence where the mother of the family is seemingly breastfeeding her kidnapped child has a terrifying conclusion, whilst the film’s perfectly executed closing moments are dripping with dread. The film’s final 20 minutes made me curl into a ball, unable to watch, begging for Eggers to make that final cut and bring the end credits about- it may take some time getting there, but it is all more than worth it.
Like last year’s Indie horror break out It Follows, The Witch also has a terrific score. One that builds the tension perfectly, whilst the use of non-diegetic sounds perfectly compliment the score and add to the impending sense of hysteria. It is also a score that is notable in its absence, especially in the bone chilling silence that accompanies some of the movie’s closing moments
The Witch is one of the most original horror movies of the 21st century and perhaps the beauty of Egger’s work is that you will take from it what you want to take from it. Is there really paranormal activity afoot? Or is it all religious hysteria taking its grip on a family who have lost everything, including their minds? Perhaps it is a combination of both, but I’ll leave you to decide that one. Very rare is it that a film is as brave as The Witch, Eggers doesn’t just stare into the darkness, he chucks us headfirst into it and lets us try and scramble our own way out.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐