The first Puritan settlers in North America left England to pursue their strict religious doctrine. So you could imagine how extreme a man who felt he had to leave that community to live a more ascetic life would be.
The Witch, the first feature from an abundantly talented writer/director named Robert Eggers, is terrifying well before any intimations of the supernatural. Using the flowery language of the time (we’re not past the three-minute mark before we hear “banish-shed”) an eerie self-exiled 1630s New England family goes about its daily ritual in a haze of religious fundamentalism. In time we learn their names – the scraggly haired father William (Ralph Ineson), his sour wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), verge-of-puberty son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), somewhat rowdy twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) and baby Sam. Beyond their small farm, which is currently failing to produce corn, there’s a brook and, beyond that, naturally, a deep, foreboding wood.
By the water one day, Thomasin is playing peekaboo with the baby when, although her eyes are closed only an instant, the infant disappears. After a few days William declares the child dead, dragged off by a wolf, though we know the truth: he was snatched by a witch, one we see only in flashes of (quite alarming) imagery. What’s stranger is that, somehow, the children seem to know this, too.
Following the disappearance of the child and the continued poor showing of crops, the family, while quick with prayers and pious expression, slowly begins to implode. What begins as joking (like whispering to a black goat) turns to suspicions of nefarious behavior. Soon one wonders if there really is a devil with a book to sign lurking just beyond the perimeter of their meagre home.
Thomasin and Caleb’s bond is special. They are both aware enough to recognize that perhaps their father’s extreme austerity may not be a true path, but their indoctrination conflicts them. Caleb can barely remember his early childhood in England, and is terrified that his unbaptized infant brother’s soul did not ascend to heaven. His unspoken desire to return to the community is also drawn from fear; if he isn’t praying the right way, perhaps he will end up damned. Add to this some cabin fever over Thomasin’s no longer deniable nubile nature, and you’ve got a recipe for Puritan problems.
One need not be a gender studies major to recognize the fear of female sexuality behind the New England witch hunts, but Eggers plays this with subtlety – if for no other reason than his primary concern is frightening the pants off you. Using jump scares only when absolutely necessary, The Witch is more reminiscent of Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills than any typical American horror flick. Which is not to say things don’t go completely off the rails by the final third. (Malick’s The New World meets The Exorcist is as fine an elevator pitch as any.)
What’s striking is the high-wire tension Eggers maintains. The dense language, some taken directly from period journals, luxuriates in a poetic surrealism. “Did ye make an unholy bond with that goat? Speak if this be pretence!” is just one of the many choice phrases that, somehow, this assured cast is able to make sound natural. Eggers has a knack for unusual framing, using negative space to add to the unease. The picture looks as if it were shot using only available light and if that means some moments come off dark, we’re only just as spooked as the characters.
Anyone who spoils the ending deserves anguish in eternal fire, but I will say The Witch is one of those very satisfying films whose conclusion somehow manages to be surprising but feel altogether perfect. This movie may be too slow and verbose to be the next breakout horror hit, but its focus on themes over plot is what elevates it to something near greatness.
This article was written by Jordan Hoffman, for theguardian.com on Friday 23rd January 2015 20.56 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010