10 out of 10
Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin
The Witch Review:
In horror, the most difficult emotion to sustain is dread. Jump scares, excessive gore, monsters of all kinds – those are relatively easy to put on display as opposed to creating an oppressive, malignant tone to the film. Dread is fragile. It requires the audience to work with it, to lift the weight of disbelief and to enter that world willingly. But that foreboding is what makes all of it worthwhile. The greatest horror films of all time are able to create and keep constant that feeling of dread – films like The Shining, or The Exorcist, or Alien excel at making the audience squirm, and it’s not because of the effects on the screen. A film filled with true dread does not give the audience the option of escape, and if the moviegoer is willing to not only take that ride but to embrace the darkness, they will find themselves truly disturbed and forever changed.
The Witch, Robert Eggers’ astounding first feature film, is dreadful. As in, full of dread. There are no moments of respite. It’s too early, perhaps, to proclaim The Witch best of the year material, but if the conversation at the end of 2016 doesn’t include this film, then the only reason will have been that 2016 was an amazing year for cinema, and there simply wasn’t enough room to talk about it. But The Witch is also delicate – reviews that proclaim The Witch to be the “scariest film ever” will not do the film any favors. The startling moments are few and far between, and there is very little gore in the movie. It is the malevolent tone, and the themes and ideas that The Witch evokes that makes this film so remarkable; faith and religion, the roles of men and women, the dysfunction of the American family, the lies that we tell ourselves when the truth is far too troubling to cope with and to comprehend. What is wickedness – is it sinning against God, or against your family, or against the assigned role that one has been given?
The answers The Witch offers are troubling. For Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), her place has been defined since birth, and her choices are few – born into the 17th century, subservient to her father William (Ralph Ineson) and her mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) and to a God that seems not to respond to her family’s plight. Dragged along with her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) to live in the wilderness, Thomasin can only hope that her new life can bring her family peace. William has decided that the community that his family resides in is wicked and against God, so they leave to make their own way into the forest in their steadfast belief and their faith. They build a home in the wild, but William cannot grow crops, or hunt food to feed his family. The corn goes black, and the animals almost seem preternatural in their ability to elude William and Caleb’s hunting parties. Then Samuel, the newborn child, disappears under Thomasin’s watch. Something sinister seems to be happening to the family, and the distrust, the weariness, and the doubt gnaw at them all. Wiliam grows to believe that they are cursed, and desperately tries to understand how he has offended God. Katherine is beside herself with grief, and can offer no aid, so the burden is on William, Thomasin, and Caleb to keep the family going.
But the evil is real. There is a darkness that seeks to snuff out their light, deep in the bowels of the dark forest. This darkness takes many forms, many shapes. Could there be a witch in the wood? What is happening to the black goat that the twins call Black Phillip and claim to speak to? Thomasin begins to doubt her father’s abilities to keep them safe, and also doubts her own beliefs. What does it mean when the family’s prayers go unanswered? Is God punishing them for their sins, or worse, indifferent to their suffering? What does it mean to live in a malevolent world, when God offers no comfort?
Eggers slowly, oh so slowly, tightens the vise. With a haunting, discordant score by Mark Korven and stunning cinematography by Jarin Blaschke that feels like the film was actually filmed in the 1600s, Robert Eggers builds a world that is full of verisimilitude. Because our belief is steadfast in the reality of Egger’s creation, when things go awry, and the evil becomes more omnipresent, we can feel the family’s tension as our own. But The Witch is not simply a demonstration of terror. As the audience sees this harsh, unforgiving landscape through Thomasin’s eyes, The Witch calls into question the very idea of religion and belief when this family slowly becomes devastated with no remorse or reprieve. Trapped by their faith, they turn on each other, and the performances are tremendous even as they are difficult to watch.
Ralph Ineson as William is a man who hides his incapability as a farmer and as a father with his belief that he has somehow offended God, and Ineson, with his formidable voice, is excellent as William slowly becomes distrustful and suspicious. Kate Dickie’s Katherine is also steadfast in her faith in God, but her convictions give way to anger and betrayal. Harvey Scrimshaw gives a performance of earnestness and heart as Caleb, who believes in his father even as the malignant forest tightens its grip. Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are creepy and eerie as the twins who claim that Black Phillip whispers to them, and tells them secrets. Their performances are unnerving, and very reminiscent of other horror films like The Other and The Innocents.
But it is Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin who gives one of the strongest performances in a horror film to date. Thomasin loves her family through all their faults and their struggles, but she begins to question a faith that offers no amenity, even as things grow bleak and desperate. She has no choices, as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, and she strains against the constrictions of religion and society. Taylor-Joy brings that desperation to the surface; when even a childish taunt to her brother and sister is mistaken as an admittance of witchcraft, and where her fate is decided by others without her consent, Thomasin’s anguish and guilt become palpable, and Taylor-Joy is as marvelous as Thomasin as she is disturbing. Her work is one of the great horror performances of the ages.
Robert Eggers’ first film is so good, so masterful, that one must be careful of overhype. It is entirely possible for The Witch to succumb to the pitfalls of hyperbole. The Witch isn’t only a great horror film, but an important one as well, and those looking for a simple scare ride could miss the forest for the trees. Eggers uses his vast knowledge and his research of colonial times to paint a tapestry of evil and darkness, but The Witch is also a precarious balancing act of dread and tone. With a film this good straight out of the gate, I’m very curious to see what Robert Eggers does next. But The Witch is a film for the ages. It is rare that a film gives as much food for thought as it does the chills down the spine, but The Witch succeeds to do both remarkably well. It is a darkness that audiences may find themselves returning to, again and again. This is the first great film of 2016.