Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw
The most terrifying thing about The Witch is the unrelenting sense of hopelessness that pervades nearly every moment. A self-proclaimed “New England folktale” set on a small farm in 1630, Robert Eggers’ immersive debut feature seems to curse its young protagonist and the rest of her Puritan family from the beginning.
Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the eldest of her parents’ five children, a teenager who is old enough to look after her siblings but too young to earn their respect. Her father William (Ralph Ineson) moves the family out of a settlement over a religious disagreement with the other townspeople. The family sets up a small, isolated farm on the edge of a forest, and their arrival is marked almost immediately by devastation. While Thomasin watches over her newborn brother, the baby mysteriously vanishes when she covers her eyes during a game of peekaboo. A close-up showing her smile turn to horrified confusion after she removes her hands from her face and sees an empty blanket is one of the movie’s many indelible images.
Nobody really knows how to explain the disappearance; her parents try to blame it on a wolf, but Thomasin knows that’s impossible. Maybe that’s because she can sense the forces at work in the forest; she seems both frightened at and in tune with her ability to detect an otherworldly presence in her body. The disturbing montage that shows her infant brother’s fate is filmed like a shadowy vision: a knife hovering over the helpless child as he lays by a campfire, a naked old woman covered in blood. Eggers is showing Thomasin’s awakening to her own power; though his movie’s portrayal of witches is at times flat and uncomfortably sexualized, Thomasin herself is a wonderfully conceived and acted character. Though she’s surrounded by family, she can’t turn to them for help; they come to fear her when they can’t explain what’s happening to them.
The Witch is at its best when it stays embedded on the family’s farm, showing their lives increasingly besieged by evil. Everyday moments like siblings playing outside become unnerving when accompanied by Mark Corven’s score. Thomasin’s family doesn’t want to acknowledge the intrusion on their devout Christian homestead, and they bury themselves further into religion and work amid all the confusion. William takes his eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) to the woods to hunt and trap; his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), still crippled by grief, stays behind with the other children and the family goats.
Animals are crucial to Eggers’ portrayal of evil. He uses the creatures that the family is dependent on for milk and meat as a way to show how they are losing control of the land. Before going hunting in the woods, William tells his oldest son Caleb that they won’t be concurred by nature. Soon after they try to trap and shoot a rabbit, and it stares back at them with an uncomfortable stillness. It meets their gaze unafraid, and when William tries to shoot it his rifle backfires.
Though the adults seem more and more frightened by the unexplainable things happening at their farm, they try to hide it from the children. Their home is too small for secrets, though. Thomasin overhears her mother’s paranoid chatter; about how she wants to get rid of her oldest daughter by having her “serve another family.” Thomasin comprehends her parents’ fear and anger, but not her own. Taylor-Joy plays her as a determined young girl whose resilience is splintered by a fear of the unknown. She begins to internalize blame for everything that’s happening; if she really is the titular witch, she faces persecution at the hands of her fellow Puritans that is perhaps more horrifying than yielding to black magic. Would she have control of her fate or is she simply switching loyalty to a different patriarchal religious order?
The Witch finds horror in the desperate ways its characters try to impose order on this chaos; a boy’s frantic prayer as he clutches a gigantic rifle and wanders lost through the woods, a father nailing a barn door shut as his children protest from inside it, a mother howling with misdirected rage after her son says a final prayer, smiles and then dies. The movie’s bloody climax seems inevitable even if its execution seems almost too blunt. Its finale, however, are hauntingly sublime: a shot of writhing naked women chanting around a fire before hovering above the blaze toward the night sky. Eggers’ film is a religious reckoning waged on a devastatingly intimate scale.