Robert Eggers’ The Witch tells the story of a family of New England settlers in the 17th century and the hardships – mundane, spiritual, and supernatural in turns – that they face in their new life after leaving their Puritan colony. The family – William, Katherine, and their children Thomasin, Caleb, twins Mercy and Jonas, and baby Samuel – are soon beset by tragedy, challenging their faith as they attempt to eke out a living from harsh land.
The film is unflinchingly bleak but inexplicably gorgeous. The barren fields and the ancient, lifeless forest shouldn’t make for such an aesthetically appealing film, but The Witch manages to romanticize the life of the settler even among the film’s tragedy. It’s a mesmerizing film – powerfully atmospheric, narratively unpredictable, and deeply symbolic – and even among the film’s varying shades of grey and brown there’s something that’s impossible to look away from.
Anya Taylor-Joy stars in her feature film debut, but hers is merely one of a handful of staggering performances in a brilliant ensemble cast. Ralph Ineson delivers a deeply sympathetic and powerful performance as the family’s patriarch, and Kate Dickie brings a relentless sense of unease to her role as the grieving mother. The Witch sees its characters build to a religious hysteria that makes for uncomfortable and unsettling viewing, but the cast’s performance – alongside Eggers’ writing and direction – ensure that it’s all carried off with resounding conviction. However, the standout performance of the film is Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, Thomasin’s younger brother who perfectly captures the innocence of religious youth whilst striving against the hardships thrust upon on him.
The Witch isn’t a perfect film, though. The dialogue seems authentic, but it can be a little off-putting at times, with plenty of lengthy biblical pondering delivered in thick and occasionally inconsistent accents that can be laborious to decipher at times, and it suffers a little from early pacing issues. It does also feature narrative twists and turns that are unexpected and increasingly less grounded as the film goes on. While The Witch is undoubtedly horror, it’s as likely to make you laugh in surprise as it is to genuinely scare you, and it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s the effect Eggers’ was attempting to have on its audience.
Still, fans of atmospheric horror or bleakly historically accurate period pieces will undoubtedly find a film to love in The Witch. It’s maybe not for everyone, but its artistic and atmospheric approach to the horror genre is refreshing and genuinely impressive throughout. Whether its likely to scare you or not is up for debate, but either way, it will undoubtedly entertain.
Summary: Solid performances bolster a gorgeously crafted piece of film, and although its writing is a little heavy at times, it’s an overall unforgettable experience
Highlights: The film’s final few scenes are a crescendo of madness that will stay with you for years to come.