‘The Witch’ is an unnerving exploration of religious fanaticism

The Witch

You have probably never thought of the 1600s as a time period where monsters roamed the land and everyone was their prey, but Robert Eggers’ feature debut The Witch will change your mind. Set against the all too quiet countryside of a still young New England, this so-called folk tale will leave you feeling unnerved and almost certainly in need of religious intervention. That, or you might walk away having sold your soul to Satan. Either way, you definitely get your money’s worth.

The year is 1630. Following a dispute with his church, a farmer (Ralph Ineson) and his wife (Kate Dickie) plus their five children are banished from the only settlement they know and forced to live on the outskirts of a still brand new colonial America. The family journeys for hours before finding a patch of land near some woods, and from there they set to establishing a new life for themselves. This includes the construction of a simple home and shed, as well as the clearing of land for farming and livestock. Everything is quiet and simple at first, but as the seasons begin to change the family soon realizes that the land they’ve chosen might not be suitable for crops. Desperate for salvation, the family puts their hope in God, and in doing so set into motion towards their own undoing in ways none of them could have ever foreseen.

It all begins with a disappearance. The family’s youngest son, Samuel, vanishes into thin air in broad daylight while being watched by the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Days pass without word of the boy’s whereabouts or the sight of a body, so the isolated family begins to question whether or not Thomasin may know more about what happened to Samuel than she originally claimed. Thomasin denies these accusations, but as paranoia and suspicion continues to grow she cannot help feeling as if no one believes her. When the family’s youngest children, twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), accuse Thomasin of witchcraft, the clan’s loyalty and faith are put to the ultimate test.

Eggers’ storytelling toes the line between slow-burn ambiguity and unnerving tension with a precision rarely seen in any genre film, but it’s his focus on religious fanaticism and the ripple effect it can create in one’s own life that makes The Witch a compelling feature. The audience is told the truth behind Samuel’s disappearance fairly early on, and they are more or less in on everything that happens from the point forward. The terror lies not in what we know, but in the fact we are unsure whether or not the family at the center of the story will be able to see beyond the blinding light of their own religious faith to discern the true horror of the world around them. Thomasin is, in some ways, just as much a victim as her missing brother. His disappearance coincides with the moment her family begins to reject her, and they are so blinded by what they perceive to be happening that they are unable to understand she is just as terrified as they are, if not more. The evil that stole Samuel away, whatever it may be, did so in such a way that only Thomasin can carry the blame, and that is a weight she must carry throughout the film.

The performances in The Witch are tremendous across the board, with Taylor-Joy and Ineson deserving the bulk of the credit, but the stars of the film are the sound cues and the music. Like the very best works by John Carpenter or David Lynch, the sound of The Witch is just as terrifying and endlessly engaging as anything else seen or said on screen. In fact, I would argue the music is often the film’s scariest element, placing tension and worry in places where it might not otherwise exist and then maintaining it for several minutes at a time. If you’re able to breathe during the final 15 minutes it should be considered some kind of miracle, as the swirling strings and pulsating bass all but force your heart into panic mode. You know it’s only a movie, but convincing your mind that fact is true may prove to be a great challenge.

I do feel it’s important to point out that The Witch does not play by the rules of modern horror. There are no jump scares, no orchestral blasts meant to induce fear and next-to-no action for the first two-thirds of the film. If anything, The Witch sets a new standard for slow-burn storytelling. It’s a gorgeously shot exercise in sustained suspense, and its meticulously crafted world will no doubt be studied for years to come. When the truth is finally revealed and all is made known you wouldn’t be alone if you found yourself seated with your jaw agape. My mouth was on the floor of the theater during the film’s final 15 minutes, and the only thoughts rushing through my excited mind were that everything that had transpired was well worth the experience for the grand finale. Whether or not you will feel the same depends highly on your tolerance for the exploration of religious themes and ideals, as well as your ability to be patient. Black Phillip does not reveal himself to everyone, but those who do see him will never forget his face.