It seems strange to start my review of The Witch with how I felt by the end, but it seems as good a place as any. In fact, letting you know that I felt shook to my core and completely unable to deal is probably the kind of reassurance one would need when considering whether to check out a horror film. The Witch isn’t a movie that is concerned about jump scares (though it contains some well placed ones), plot twists (though there might be one) or gore (though there is blood). What you get is a fully horror experience crafted by the brilliant Robert Eggers and delivered in terrifying spades by a group of brilliant actors.
Piety vs the rule of man is a theme of the film and is realized for us in the opening scene when William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children are sent out of the colony to live in the wilderness. One day, their daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing with their newborn son, when suddenly he vanishes. This devastates the family, shaking them to the core, allowing suspicion about what happened to the child to creep in. Slowly but surely everyone begins to turn on each other, mainly driven by their fear that their daughter might indeed be a witch.
What I found so brilliant about the movie is that it continually seeks to unsettle you, not just by what you see on-screen or envision, but your expectations. The Witch completely blasts through your expectations from about the 10 minute mark and continues to play with its audience, engaging us to sink deeper into the tale. I truly appreciated the throwback calls to The Crucible that would always be present in a film like this, and I appreciated that The Witch was smart enough to only use our feelings associated with it rather than full plot lines. In fact, it’s so well composed and expectations ripping enough that I’m still wrestling with my thoughts on whether that was a good thing. It’s hard not to feel the slight whiplash from some character introductions and how they are employed in the film (this is the best I can do without spoiling anything). I suppose by the end of the film the point really isn’t what you came in thinking it was, but it still made certain moments in the harrowing conclusion feel a bit less tension filled, and for a movie that so thrives on tension, this was a bit disappointing.
However, in the moments where I might have felt fleeting disappointment, I was brought right back by the force that was the acting in this film. It’s hard to figure out where to start heaping the praise given that there isn’t a single weak link in the film. Even the two children, played by Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson, who I would normally find incredibly annoying (in the best way), were played with such zeal and experience that I wanted them to be on the screen longer. Same with Harvey Scrimshaw, who delivers a brilliant and physically demanding performance past his years, while still maintaining the sympathies we have for a young child. The parents played by Ineson and Dickie, are both amazing in their portrayals of characters beset by grief whose reactions vary and whose piety shapes their actions going forward. I was most impressed with Anya Taylor-Joy who has to play a character being tossed and turned in every direction while also not just being a lame character, and boy does she deliver.
In many eyes, horror films will never rise above its B genre beginnings, however what makes the good rise from the bad is their thematic weight and groundedness. The Witch is full of rich juxtapositions that blend together to make a thematic through line. By having the super religious family move to the woods, we get a nice parallel of nature vs God. From there, the levels just unravel of piety when faced against the potential of evil, gender roles and how they play a part in decision-making, how womanhood can be explored even in the relative isolation the characters face, the anxiety of fear and detriments of lying, and above all, the unsinkable feeling that evil might not just be all around us, but in us.