We’re in a bit of an independent horror resurgence of late, in case you hadn’t noticed. Between The Babadook, last year’s It Follows, and now The Witch, ideas have been thrown into the mix, along with a desire to frighten. More disturbing than outright scary, this genre effort is impeccably made, announcing filmmaker Robert Eggers as someone to really watch out for. Armed with absolutely incredible production design, a tremendous visual flair, top notch attention to period detail, and a committed cast, Eggers has all the ingredients here for a genre classic. His direction certainly leads us towards that goal, though the writing tries to work a few too many things into the script, leading to sense of trying to have your thematic cake and eat it too. To the extent that The Witch has problems, it’s fairly small ones, but they’re there and they kept this one from going to the next level. More than just a calling card by Eggers, this debut feature is legitimately strong, though for some it might be caught in the middle of genres. I can see certain audience members who love horror finding this a bit too slowly paced and lacking in scares, though on the flip side I can see art house viewers finding it too gory and perhaps even scarier than they can take. That the film rests right in the middle actually is a plus in my book, much like The Babadook and It Follows, to go back to those two. This movie is better than the former but a step down from the latter, but The Witch is still easily one of 2016’s most accomplished titles so far.
Set in 1630’s New England, about 30 years before the Salem Witch Trials would begin, the film follows a family as they deal with exile as well as potentially demonic possession. Facing the prospect of banishment from the church, farmer William (Ralph Ineson) has moved his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), older daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pre teen son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), as well as younger kids Jonas (Lucas Dawson), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), and a newborn, to a desolate piece of land. Located on the edges of a dark forrest, it’s foreboding for the less than skilled William already, but when their newborn vanishes, the prospect of a witch comes into play. Katherine is even more religious than the already devout William, so she fears the worst. We’re even shown potentially what’s happened, and it’s not a pretty sight. That’s just the first missive in what could either be witchcraft, a family coming apart at the seems, or both. When Caleb encounters someone in the woods, things take an even darker turn. What’s certain is that the animals are acting strange, suspicion about Thomasin has taken over the family, and bad things are clearly coming their way.
Obviously, it would be spoiling things to say what exactly happens in The Witch, but that set up should be enough to draw you in, along with the title, of course. That’s clearly what Eggars is hoping for, as he takes his time from there on out. To some degree, he’s a little overly obsessed tying the potential witching into the puberty that Thomasin is going through, as well as the temptation facing Caleb as he heads towards manhood. That’s a mild shortcoming with the writing, as Eggars will veer from metaphorical tale to gory horror sequence without really picking a side. In trying to have it both ways, he creates a unique cinematic experience, but one that probably would have been better suited going all in on one of the directions. As much as the screenplay is overly ambitious, it’s rooted in a desire to make this more than a generic horror film, and that’s something that’s easy to appreciate.
Visually, Eggers puts forward a very accomplished debut in The Witch. The attention to detail is exquisite, with some of the shots really being beautiful. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and Craig Lathrop, who was head of Production Design, really outdo themselves. Blaschke and Lathrop combine with Eggers to at times even simulate the work of Terrence Malick. The world feels incredibly realistic and lived in, which is essentially for the non horrific elements of the movie to work, especially considering the deliberate pacing favored here. When we’re just observing the struggles of the family, the technical aspects really shine, allowing us to appreciate the work that went into this. That’s not to say that the supernatural elements don’t play, but they don’t quite stand out in the same way, especially considering the limited budget. I will say this though, Eggers does make a certain goat easily the scariest farm animal that I’ve ever seen.
If the script is a bit of a negative and the direction of the film is a big plus, then the acting is a definite positive as well, tipping things heavily in the right direction as well. Both Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy really stand tall, investing these complex characters with a deep humanity. Ineson wonderfully portrays a pious man unsure of how to care for his family, violating something deep within him. Whenever his character attempts to put a positive spin on things or instill some hope into his wife and children, something, be it a witch or just life, knocks him down. It’s a tortured character, to be sure, and Ineson hits that note terrifically. Taylor-Joy is just as good here, basically as the heart and soul of The Witch. She really gives you a sense of how horrific it must have been in those days going from a girl to a woman. When you watch her pleas when suspicion of witchcraft is pointed at her, you 100% feel for her. Kate Dickey is solid, if a bit one note, while Harvey Scrimshaw didn’t leave much of an impression, at least compared to Ineson and Taylor-Joy. In addition to the aforementioned Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger, the cast includes Bathsheba Garnett, Julian Richings, and Sarah Stephens, among a few others.
Overall, The Witch is an ambitious horror film with much more to offer than most other movies of this ilk. I suspect that we’ll see something really terrific from Eggers in the near future. Had he made this a more overt fright flick, I think mainstream horror success could have been achieved, while if he has made this more of a straight period piece, art house success might have been just as likely. By combining the two, mostly successfully, he’s probably limited his audience, but instead created something unique. In continuing the recent trend of indie horror being much more than just a product to scare with. Eggers has set himself up for a great career. If you’re a little on the adventurous and patient side, The Witch might very well impress you.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!