“The Witch” is an ambitious horror film that is billed as “A New England Folktale”. It centers around a family in the 17th century, during the height of the Salem witch trials, that leaves a plantation due to disagreements that the father in the family has with the congregation. The father, William (Ralph Ineson), is devoutly religious and definitely Puritan, and believes that the family could do God’s work better on their own. This leads to them being banished, and they make their way to a remote part of the countryside, surrounded by a sprawling forest. His family includes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), and fraternal twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger). Soon after moving, Katherine has another son, Samuel. While playing with the child, Thomasin discovers that Samuel is taken by what she believes is a wolf. The family is in turmoil following the disappearance, all while the crops begin to die around them, forcing William to hunt for food. However, no animals fall for his traps, and his one attempt at killing a rabbit winds up literally backfiring.
Within the forest, it appears that there is a witch that resides there. And she is the one behind the napping of the child, and could be behind a lot of the other ills that befall the family. This is where the film, which starts promisingly, begins to crack. The witch is brazenly shown “sacrificing” the baby, and using his blood to rub all over herself. It’s a shocking scene, and it is supposed to set the tone for the rest of an, at times, unsettling film. But for all its provocativeness, it doesn’t exactly lead anywhere. The witch is not seen again for quite some time, and the focus goes back to the family.
We learn that the family, especially William, is not as Godly as they would like to proclaim to be. They all speak Biblically, and they pray, and they deny themselves any sort of earthly pleasure. But they certainly are not without sin. William reveals he took his family to this new place because of his sin of pride, and has stolen a sacred cup from his wife; Katherine admits she lost all faith and emotional attachment after the disappearance of Samuel. Caleb begins experiencing sexual impulses and feelings, and becomes seduced by them. As for the twins, and Thomasin, they accuse each other of witchcraft and play around with ideas of Satanism, including a black goat they call Black Phillip.
The film tries to have an overall sense of foreboding. The soundtrack builds into a shrill whirlwind of voices before going quiet–the camera cuts to black an awful lot. The sky is always bleak. But instead of ominous, the film felt very drab. I was never caught up in the story or the characters, and soon the atmosphere began to wither away for me as well. While I appreciate the effort in making something new and original, I’m not sure first time writer/director Robert Eggers is in complete control of his vision here.
There seems to be a running theme about the fragile tethers of faith. The hypocrisy of religious judgment and persecution. However, making the witch real and living in this world doesn’t allow those themes to fully realize themselves. Yes, William is revealed to be a liar, and “false” as his wife accuses him of. But mankind has always struggled with itself in terms of honesty. It sometimes feels like the film is going in a direction of an allegory of sexual awakening, as Thomasin comes from a long line of sexual repression (even though she has a big family). In the film’s climactic scene, the resolution could be seen as a payoff of that. But, there’s not much setting it up, and the last shot of the film is almost laughably unnecessary, killing off any lingering creepiness that the film somewhat had built up.
The film has individual scenes that are extremely well done, and the acting is exceptional. Everyone involved in this film had their hearts in the right place. I liked the idea of a “witch” story taking place during those tumultuous times, with outrageous accusations destroying many innocent people’s lives. I think Eggers wanted to have it both ways here, in a sense: yes, witchcraft is real, but so are religious maniacs. But for those two points to coexist in one film, it muddles the message and makes it murky.
I also believe that the dialog, which is prominently archaic, was a miscalculation. We can barely understand what these characters are saying to each other, albeit with the most enthusiastic conviction. I realize the idea was to show the “reality” of this world, but it’s too hard to follow sometimes and I felt like I was missing out on something that was possibly important to know. Not to mention that none of the characters are very well fleshed out, which made them lacking and hard to really care about.
And, in a film that wants to be original, having the “old hag witch”, “sensual witch”, and enchanted animals, is as familiar as it gets. Although, in a very disturbing scene involving Caleb, we are treated to one powerful symbol as stomach churning as it is to watch. But it’s one of the few times the film does pay something off nicely.
The film’s 90 minute length starts to lag once I felt the story drifting apart, and turning more into an atmospheric and visceral film. Even then, it never seems to come to terms with itself, and in the end, left me unmoved. As curious and intriguing as it was to first step into that creepy forest, I was more than ready to leave it as soon as it ended.