The best movies are the ones that change how you see things, like thinking of Network whenever you look at the news. The Witch does for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean. They’re ruined for you. Thickets hide uncertainty and mystery as they close around you, closer and closer, until the eventual harvest of their 1630s Puritan crop.
Beginning at the end of a trial, the story opens with the self-imposed banishment of deeply devout William (Ralph Ineson) from a New England plantation along with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas, and baby Samuel. They set off to find their own way, free to practice their faith as they wish, settling after a brief journey in a clearing next to a thick wood. When Samuel vanishes, family tensions come to a head while their faith is assaulted from without and within.
Where do they find child actors like this? I’m not sure how old Harvey Scrimshaw is (has nobody interviewed this kid?), but he looks to be about 10 or 11 in a disturbing and nuanced performance. He and Anya Taylor-Joy (who was almost or just-turned 18 at the time of filming) create two of the finest characters I’ve ever seen in a horror movie — easily the best child performances since Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Taylor-Joy balances on the dangerous precipice of Puritanical womanhood with grace, humor, and enrapturing charisma. The entire family delivers lived-in performances, constructing marriages, cross-continental moves, and even incestuous curiosity from glances and rowdiness. Screaming for kids to be quiet is a universal truth. We should’ve put that on the Voyager Golden Records.
Writer/Director Robert Eggers, in his first film, forces us to pay attention by creating a sense of cultural distance and language familiarity with his setting. We strain to get close to these people with whom we share a language but not an accent, or a religion but not an overwhelming devotion. It’s as if we’ve discovered a terrible secret about our great-great-grandparents. Far enough away, yet so close. Uncomfortable intimacy juxtaposed with terrible isolation, danger flickers at the edges like flesh in candlelight.
Their farm, on the edge of the wild, beats back the untamed forest and the unknown evil within. But as we learn, there are forces (witches, devils, black goats) in the world we shouldn’t tempt. The production design, costuming, framing, and pacing conspire to drag you slowly into this darkness. Even the musical cues are sparse and devastating, echoing the visual language, like the crack of a slapstick evoking the snapping of an iron leg-hold trap when a child has fallen into evil’s clutches.
You won’t jump, which isn’t a knock against the film. An old ghoul leaping at you from a corner, accompanied by a sting of shrieking strings, is almost always the cheap crutch of a predictable movie. Horror and surprise are not the same thing. You will instead squirm, wince, and shudder as realms of transcendentally human fears are opened up for you. In the tradition of Carl Jung’s theory of genetic memory — where we all have instincts lurking in our collective unconsciousness as a species — well, this is what we’re all afraid of. The genesis of the bump in the night. The danger in the wilderness beyond our campfire. The rustling leaves in the woods. Good luck going camping after this one.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.