They could have been safe. They could have lived long, sheltered lives together as a family. They could have survived easily within the confines of the village, but father had to succumb to his pride, and claim himself as the most devoted Christian amongst his peers, even going as far as to insult the lawmakers in town and question their religiosity. Based on his conceit, and his refusal to offer up an apology, father, mother, and the children are banished to the outskirts of the plantation, where they are left to fend for themselves against the witch of the wood and her evil magics.
At first, it seems that all is well and their faith has offered a coat of protection which shields them from wrong. However, when the youngest of their clan, their baby Sam, goes missing, and their crops wither and die, the family members grow paranoid and rabid, pointing fingers at whomever seems most suited to shoulder the blame — more often than not the accused is the oldest sister Thomasin. Whether or not Thomasin actually is at fault is of little importance, for the family will fall apart long before they discover the truth behind their bad luck if they continue down this dreary path of backstabbing and distrust. They pray to the sky, fear the trees, and bleed their bodies of illness, but all of their superstitions and hopefulness for a fresh start in the new world can’t save them from the corruption of the doubt in their hearts, and the black magic that seeps in through the cracks of their damned souls.
From literary works, to drawings, to cinema, depictions of witchcraft have always carried with them a subtext of some sort. Whether it be a comparison between the Salem Witch Trials of the 1700s and the witch hunt in the 1950s by blacklisting enthusiast Senator McCarthy, the idea of conservative religious types labeling people they don’t understand as “witches”, or just the notion of a girl developing her powers as she matures from a young lady into a grown woman, the use of witches in pop culture often goes hand in hand with a deeper meaning. However, where The Witch stands apart from its predecessors is its portrayal of magic as a parallel for the struggles that the British felt when they first arrived in the States, and the paranoia that personified as a result of their failed attempts to survive on American soil.
Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie give spellbinding performances as the devout couple so entrenched in their religion that they are willing to turn on their own children if they feel their lord demands it. Anya Taylor-Joy is spectacular as the sweet, innocent child who grows tainted when the harshness of colonial times drives her family mad, and the evils of the wood slither out and persuade her parents to abandon all reason and treat her like a heathen. As her purity is defiled, the light in her eyes grows wicked and dangerously playful, lending to the thought that perhaps all her family’s accusations towards her might hold some legitimacy. Watching these three members interact is a real treat, as each argument keeps the viewer guessing as to which party is in the right, and which is slowly losing their grip on reality.
However, the real surprise in this film is newcomer Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays Thomasin’s little brother Caleb. Caught between craving the love and approval of his parents, and his sympathy for his ostracized sister, Scrimshaw delivers a relatable, conflicted persona as the boy who wants to defend his sibling, but doesn’t dare disobey his elders. Scrimshaw executes this attitude with ease, but his most impressive moment comes after he falls ill of an unknown disease, and fights for his life on a sweat-soaked cot under the watchful eyes of his loved ones. As he shrieks and howls and begs to be put out of his misery, Scrimshaw displays the power and discipline of an actor well beyond his years. It will be exciting to follow what promises to be a fulfilling career for this talented young man.
From the youngest toddler to the oldest Puritan, each member of the cast delivers their lines with the kind of enthusiasm that demands undivided attention. Their success is due in large part to a beautifully crafted script by director Eggers, who smartly pulls much of his dialogue from real diaries and manuscripts of the time period that he portrays. By using written words found from the actual days of pilgrimage, Eggers offers up an authenticity that keeps his film grounded in grueling reality, even when the magic seeks to uproot and whisk the story away into a fantasy land. Because of this, the film itself carries the grit of a historical drama, as the actors echo out real dialogue spoken by real settlers, as opposed to words written by someone who’s simply guessing how people of this time period might have spoken.
The relentless, suffocating tension that permeates each scene is present from the moment the movie starts, until the end credits roll. The haunting cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, the sinfully unsettling score by Mark Korven, and the raw, committed performances of the cast combine to make a stunning directorial debut for Robert Eggers, that in the end, leaves the audience as anxious and gut wrenched as the characters onscreen. Above all else, Eggers made a movie that inherently touches its viewers, leaving an impact as sweltering as the coaxing influences of ancient hypnotizing magics. An excellent use of religion as a fear tactic, The Witch plays on the terrors of the time period as much as it does the witchcraft, creating a scary foreign world for naive newcomers who have grown accustomed to England’s safer shores, and punishing those who rely on their faith as a way of explaining that which they do not know. Off to a triumphant start, director Eggers has eerily crafted what is easily one of the best horror movies to come out in the past ten years, and possibly one of the greatest witch stories of all time.