The Witch, writer/director Robert Eggers’ mindbogglingly phenomenal debut film, is not like most modern horror movies. While many of today’s Hollywood fright flicks are heavy on cheap, immediate jump scares and/or gore overload, Eggers’ film is a methodically slow paced psychological nightmare. Where other scary movies are satisfied with simply popping out and yelling “boo!” at the audience, The Witch is all about embedding itself under the viewer’s skin and chipping away at their souls.
Set in 17th century New England, The Witch is actually a twisted period drama about a doomed Puritan family and not the supernatural spook fest some people are expecting. The film follows Thomasin, a striking young teenage girl, and her devout Christian family as they struggle to farm an untamed patch of land near an ominous forest. Her father’s fervent religious beliefs, deemed too extreme for their local Puritan village, has led her family to be exiled from their community and forced to rely on each other for survival. When their crops begin to fail and after suffering a string of tragic and bizarre mishaps, the group’s rigid and repressive beliefs begins to tear their family apart and leaves certain members susceptible to darker, outside influences lurking in the woods.
Eggers’ film is brilliantly subdued and terrifyingly patient. The director sprinkles just enough twisted visuals on screen to keep the audience on edge and packs the film with dozens of hints and callbacks all leading up to The Witch‘s glorious and fiery conclusion that will leave mouths aghast and have cinema fiends jonesing for repeated viewings. Rarely has such drab and murky cinematography looked so beautifully haunting. The film’s 1:66 aspect ratio stretches the menacing tree lines even higher and makes the fearful expressions on it’s actor’s faces all the more real. Speaking of authenticity, the sets, costume design, and Olde English dialogue [some of which was taken from actual 17th century records] adds another layer of OCD approved creepiness to the film. That, coupled with the amazing cast [comprised of some remarkable new child actors and kind of freaky animals] whose intimate and in some cases, legitimately spellbinding performances, makes The Witch feels less like a Hollywood horror flick and more like a pre-Salem Witch Trials documentary. Oh, and the film’s completely unnerving score, easily the most unsettling aspect of the entire feature; makes Daniel Plainview’s nails on chalk board ridden crawl through the desert in Their Will Be Blood seem like a cake walk.
The real unspeakable monster in The Witch isn’t Satan or his cauldron boiling maids, but the horrors of 17th century Puritan society and by extension, any noninclusive, oppressive hivemind. Thomasin and her family are repeatedly tested and put through the ringer in The Witch and cling to their faith for guidance throughout their ordeal, but it’s these same archaic/misogynistic beliefs that permeates every aspect of their culture that actually propels them further into darkness. When speaking truth to the hypocrites in power, or displaying the slightest hints of intellectual or sexual freedom results in scorn, who’s really the villain here?
The Witch is a staggeringly brilliant film and is basically 90 minutes of absolute dread, no matter how you slice it.