Film Review: “The Witch”

Rating: 4.5/5.0
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw
Release Date: Feb. 19, 2016
Rated: R

“The Witch” reaches into a deeper form of fear by attacking the building block of stability: family. The film takes no time to raise the stakes, and that willingness to play with structure is a creative risk that pays off in dividends. Ten minutes into the film, the hunt starts when baby Samuel disappears under the care of eldest sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). There’s a constant worry for those out of sight. Suspicions and accusations are directed at family members with little to no evidence — a true witch hunt. A family caught in the grip of Puritan zealotry, unable to produce food and exiled from the colony, isn’t given a break as paranoia slowly creeps into their lives. This is as much a domestic drama as it is a horror.

The film is a master class in writing, acting and directing. Its world is a bleak place, a mixture of infinite forest and suffocating fog. The film lacks vibrancy, but the drab world instills a sense of hopelessness that weighs down on the soul. The camera unifies the alien world of colonial New England as one hostile mass. Tonal consistency keeps the audience wired throughout, making for a brisk watch. “The Witch” plays with ambiguity in regards to the existence of the supernatural, both of the divine and damned. Foreign yet familiar, their vernacular has an alienating sense to it. Every word is shrouded by thick English accents, nearly in need of subtitles whenever William (Ralph Ineson) graces the screen.

Their descent into unhinged zealotry is enrapturing because the family’s cast is impeccable. Harvey Scrimshaw has a breakout performance as eldest son Caleb, basking in the spotlight with two major scenes. One of them is reminiscent of “The Exorcist,” but uniquely captivating because it’s Caleb, an innocent child. The vestige of childhood does nothing to hold back the supernatural forces that prey on the weak; its sexual undercurrents are unnerving, especially when juxtaposed with the children. The young twins Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) beckon “The Shining,” but serve a more active role here — testing family loyalties by accusing Tomasyn of witchcraft. A scuffle between children grows into genuine concern for her allegiance to Christianity. Tomasyn’s very position in the family is being questioned, she’s loathed by her siblings and tormented by her parents. Without a sense of purpose, she splinters off — burned by the one source that was supposed to provide unconditional love.

This is dark folklore a la 2014’s “It Follows,” remixing classic elements of horror into something unique and familiar. These elements are carefully weaved together by the scrupulous vision of director Robert Eggers, who constructs an enveloping attack on the senses out of it. This is a testament to the ingenuity of independent filmmaking, showing what’s possible with a million-dollar budget and acclaim at Sundance. It’s an incredible debut for Eggers, who’s managed to manifest fear in the darkest corners of our hearts.