Until it goes off the rails in its third act, The Witch maintains an unnerving, tense aura of creepiness and dread. The dread comes not from gore or bloodshed, but from the overwhelming threat of violence that seems inevitable in a 1630s Puritan setting. That is Puritan, not puritanical. These folks in bonnets and heavy cloth seem like the real witches; they would be willing to sacrifice their children if commanded to do so. The Witch occurs in an environment where religious devotion and the desire to avoid the hot place approach insanity. The eerie themes of fanaticism are supported by scraping, screeching strings on the soundtrack — reminiscent of the score from. Like the Overlook Hotel, this world is cavernous and monstrous. There is evil and danger lurking about, but no one knows when it may strike.
The story is a claustrophobic family drama set on the farm of a newly immigrated clan from England. The color palette is muted and bleak as ever — scarcely a shred of orange or green on screen. The Indian corn is withered and rotten, spooky woodlands surround the homestead and the local wildlife seems possessed of malevolent spirits. Thomasin (the marvelous Anya Taylor-Joy) is keeping watch over her baby brother when he suddenly disappears. With a name that includes “sin,” she is marked as an outsider — similar to Hester Pryne from The Scarlet Letter — from the outset of the movie. Soon her demonic younger siblings Mercy and Jonas are accusing her of black magic and satanic bidding, and her petrified parents don’t know any better than to believe the children’s accusations. Thomasin’s grief-stricken, manic-depressive mother Catherine (Kate Dickie) harbors an ill-conceived hatred for her after her brother’s disappearance. Her father William (Ralph Ineson) — a stoic, gravel-voiced rock who resembles Jesus with his flowing brown locks at the supper table — does his best to quell her mother’s rantings, but can only remain unconvinced for so long.
The only character who is sympathetic to Thomasin’s plight appears to be her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), a noble little boy who is as terrified of sin and damnation as she is. While hunting in the woods with William, Caleb asks his father if his baby brother has gone to hell, and William replies that he doesn’t know. In response, Catherine insists that the baby has gone to hell because he has not been baptized. The tension between the parents builds and leaves the children feeling even more uneasy. The foremost ghoul at play — the one that casts looming shadows over the entire film and begets the gloomy setting — is the grim tradition of Puritanism. A strong promise of Jacobean tragedy hangs over the family’s little house. What’s most frightening is the sense that Thomasin’s parents probably would not hesitate to kill her.
The Witch was written and directed by first-timer Robert Eggers. He demonstrates an uncanny feel for period detail, a penchant for filling his frames with claustrophobic tension and a knack for staging and camera movement that escalates the discomfort palpably. There is one particular shot of Caleb’s demonic possession that is a masterstroke of acting and composition. The camera leers over the pallid, afflicted boy as he retches up words of prayer and at this moment, Eggers’ genius is apparent.
Eggers is less successful at the gorefest splatter stuff. Shots of people being gored in the woods and of a gnarled old woman who lives deep in the forest lose their magnitude at the hands of Eggers. That said, the movie loses its pressurecooker slow burn when it surrenders to unforeseen violence in the last twenty minutes and the movie becomes genuinely horrifying.
Eggers does elicit magnificent performances from his young actors and their onscreen parents. Taylor-Joy has a wide-eyed face, a blank canvas with so much thought swimming behind her pupils that the audience can project multiple layers of intention and character onto her. The actress carries the whole film on her shoulders with grace and ease. Harvey Scrimshaw is a similarly marvelous young actor, Ralph Ineson makes a sympathetic yet unstable and threatening father and Kate Dickie is an appropriately mad old maid. All cast members inhabit the epoch of 17th century New England with complete believability. Credit has to be given to the screenplay, which evokes Shakespearean verse and draws from historical accounts of witch-hunts and evil sorcery.
Ultimately, The Witch transcends its genre roots to become more than a simple horror film. It is also a haunting exercise in lugubrious period scenery, family drama and family tragedy, blind devotion and repression of free will. By the end, it’s not clear who the culprit is, but it seems everyone in the Puritan milieu is marked for doom. Considering the conditions of their culture and society, it is not so surprising.