Written and directed by: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, and Kate Dickie
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?"
Subtitled “A New England Folktale,” The Witch rolls in like a fog, carried on the hushed whispers that pass through pursed lips and clenched teeth. It lurks with insidious intent, slowly creeping about as it slowly begins to smother anything in its path. Director Robert Eggers deploys his debut feature as though it were a sacrilege, or perhaps an incantation meant to summon demons from the thick haze of time and memory. And like any demonic invocation, it’s layered with the excitement of forbidden thrills: encounters with the prince of darkness might terrify, but they also tempt. Deep down, we all want to “live deliciously,” and The Witch preys on the fine line separating dread and exhilaration.
Coiled with a palpably repressed energy, the film feels delicately perched, almost as if the slightest outburst might shatter the rigid decorum of its 17th century Puritan community. Even when we watch a council render judgment on one of its own flock, it unfolds with stifled intensity. Having been deemed too zealous, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family have been banished from their plantation, sentenced to fend for themselves in their own backwoods hovel. The ordeal seems to be especially difficult for Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the teenaged daughter who bears the weight on her anxiety-ridden face. With her world all but ruined, she finds herself practically stranded at the edge of the woods, charged with tending to her four siblings, including an infant brother whose sudden, inexplicable disappearance causes her family to unravel.
From the moment the sense of horrific realization creeps across Thomasin’s face, audiences identify her as a surrogate of sorts. Certainly, they can empathize with her alienation; where she at least has the small comforts of a family homestead (however briefly), viewers are marooned in a staggering recreation of 17th century New England. Crafted from actual, contemporary accounts from the era, The Witch is an immaculate collection of period-accurate details. Florid, early modern English crackles from the characters’ mouths, often delivered with a pointed coolness, while the wide-brimmed hats cast long, judgmental shadows. Perhaps most disconcerting is the remote location: this truly feels like the middle of fucking nowhere, far removed from any semblance of civilization, perpetually cast in either fading daylight or candlelight. Only the dense yet desolate forest looms nearby, hoarding its own cryptic brand of malice, existing exclusively to undo Eggers’s handsomely crafted reenactment.
As the expected litany of strange noises and mysterious events unfolds, it’s clear this existence is meant to crumble under the weight of whatever oppressive force awaits in the woods. That it will do so is inevitable. The Witch appropriately proceeds with a predestined fatalism: no film that feels this dreadful (and Mark Korven’s quietly unnerving score ensures that you will feel it) can end well. Eggers doesn’t resort to cheap jump scares (there’s maybe two explicit jolts in the whole movie, and both land) but relies instead on exploiting the fragile familial dynamics. Many horror films aspire to a level of suspense that inspires its audience to involuntarily hold its breath, but so few reach it, much less in the manner The Witch does. At any given moment, the slightest interaction—be it a brother’s curious, furtive glance at his own sister’s cleavage or a lie between husband and wife—feels as if it could topple an arrangement that never had a chance to be idyllic.
For much of its run time, The Witch proceeds like a doom metal dirge, swelling with deep, ominous portent. The family’s exile quickly begins to feel like a death sentence, only they’re all charged with fashioning each other’s nooses. Hysteria and witchcraft often work in concert to destructive ends, and so it is here, as paranoia conspires to turn this family inside-out. As usual, the very possibility of witchcraft is enough to exploit the family’s guilt, grief, and resentment, transforming them into a malevolent, metaphorical force. No one could fault Eggers if he wanted to settle for this recurring but still resonant exploration of how repression tends to create its own demons; however, he swiftly rejects this notion—“fuck that,” he might as well say as he makes it quite clear that we’re dealing with an actual witch residing in the woods.
Of all the film’s many virtues, this directness may be its most effective. Eggers is straightforward: not only is the devil real, but his minions don’t intend to be coy. The Witch isn’t the type of movie that creeps up from behind; rather, it looks you in the eye as it commits itself to strangling you. Within the space of ten minutes, it reveals its mangy, gnarled witch bathing in an infant’s blood. You can’t ignore that kind of audacity, and the film further tips its hand through more inexplicable events, each more disconcerting than the last: one goat’s milk turns to blood, while another—named “Black Phillip” by the family’s set of creepy young twins—may be the dark one himself. Technically, The Witch isn’t a possession movie, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feature one of the most unnerving and heart-wrenching exorcisms in recent memory. Perhaps refreshingly, there’s nothing particularly ambiguous about The Witch: it insists that its demons don’t just lurk in the mind and sets itself to patiently drowning its audience in its nightmarish cacophony of betrayal and bloodshed.
One might say it even revels in its witchery, going so far as to eventually imply that it’s less a nightmare and more of a feverish daydream. Eggers couches The Witch from Thomasin’s perspective, a decision that allows him to explore into the outer fringes of what witchcraft represents. For her parents and younger siblings, it’s something unspeakable to be buried under the weight of an oppressive religion, one that has no use for comfort—at one point, William pointedly remarks to his son that only God knows if the missing baby has been spared from the flames of hell. Thomasin bears the weight of this puritanical guilt and so much more: as a teenage girl, she endures a thankless existence, one that sees her predestined to assume the role of an unappreciated matriarch.
Now that she’s become a woman, her parents quite literally don’t know what to do with her. They have designs of shipping her off to some other family in an effort to reduce their own burden, especially once her “failure” to protect her younger brothers plunges her mother into despair. If she can’t properly care for children, what use is she? When Thomasin overhears their conversations and finds herself at the mercy at her bratty twin siblings, it’s no wonder she feels compelled to rebel, if ever so slightly. After her younger sister accuses her of witchcraft, she embraces the opportunity to lash out by playfully confirming those suspicions; it may be a mean joke, but you sense that Thomasin wishes it weren’t. Her own religion denies her any agency, so it’s hardly surprising that she may find some appeal in the forbidden thrills of witchcraft.
Taylor-Joy delivers a keen performance as Thomasin, a girl constantly at war with her puritanical self-loathing. It’s obvious that she knows her place all too well but struggles with it. Her confessions to God reveal a wide-eyed girl clinging to her faith almost out of reflex before her conviction begins to waver. Unlike her parents—whose bouts with self-doubt simmer with evangelical fervor—Thomasin is almost curious in the face of witchcraft, driven by the same desire that continues to draw marginalized teenage girls to the dark arts to this day. Both Eggers and Taylor-Joy operate on the same, muted wavelength in this regard: throughout her ordeal, Thomasin continues to cling to the same faith that has sidelined her, but it’s hardly a surprise when she sees witchcraft as a means to escape the confines of a religion that has imprisoned her with shackles forged out of hellfire and brimstone.
In this respect, The Witch not only circles the well-worn themes of religious hypocrisy but also exposes the perils of pious repression. Eggers is at his most radical in his empathy for Thomasin, who has been crushed by a religion that has suppressed every sense of her being, from her spirituality to her sexuality. He suggests that she—and other women—are victims of this repression, one of America’s original sins that continues to infect our gender dynamics. Like Eve, she is ripped from the comforts of home, banished into the wilderness; however, she ultimately finds salvation here after shedding a life of endless toil, the sweat of her brow wiped away in a transcendent, supernatural embrace of her own forbidden fruit. Here, she transforms from the meek, unsure girl burdened by a nightly prayer of forgiveness into a creature raptured by an orgasmic, Satanic pleasure.
These separate moments—both captured in intimate close-up—capture the range of horror and elation, two end-points of the same continuum. Make no mistake: The Witch wants to fuck you up, but it also compels you to pledge your soul at the witching hour by singing your name to a book whose pages are splashed with blood and moonlight. “Hail Satan,” it seductively whispers into your ear, leaving you powerless but euphoric all at once.
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