"The devil holds fast your eyelids."
Thomasin and her family are exiled from their plantation, the result of her Puritan Christian father being somehow too religious for his brethren. The camera seems to freeze on her face as this decision washes over her. She and her family pack their belongings on a cart and forge into the unknown, eventually settling in a clearing. The entire family kneels and holds hands, arms extended high into the sky, giving thanks to God for their good fortune.
Faith is the driving force behind THE WITCH. Every meal is blessed; when crops are reaped they praise their savior; when the harvest fails, they ask God for forgiveness. The 17th century is a pretty terrible time to be alive. As I watched THE WITCH from a reclining faux-leather chair, with a tub of popcorn the size of my upper torso, Thomasin washed her family's clothes from a stream, while her siblings played with a goat. The creature comforts we enjoy are realized quickly.
THE WITCH doesn't take long to set the mood. Early on, Thomasin takes her infant brother, Samuel, into a meadow to play hide-and-seek. Her gleefulness is replaced by alarm as she removes her hands from her eyes and sees Samuel missing. There's a rustling in the woods, then we cut to a hooded woman scurrying through the forest, baby in hand. You see, the witch is quite real, there are no fake-outs, nor urban legends described. In a terrifically disturbing scene, the witch murders Samuel, then grinds him into a paste, coating herself and her broomstick in his remains; this the apparent source behind her proven mysticism. There are similarly eerie scenes littered throughout THE WITCH, yet none nearly hold the terrifying dread of the aforementioned.
Rest assured, THE WITCH is a horror film, though it is more tense than scary. In a setting this dank and foreboding there is no need for monsters or jump scares. Everything about this time period reeks of the unknown and disbelief. After Samuel's death (it's blamed on wolves), Thomasin's mother and father get even closer to God, believing that their actions have somehow led to this unthinkable path. When an unfathomable pattern of misfortune emerges, their conviction is tested, and the course of action veers to startling choices.
THE WITCH is written and directed by Robert Eggers, in a debut. It's wonderfully shot. Eggers captures the innate anxiety throughout, indeed aided by the environment. The film is at least partially based on texts that Eggers found chronically the lives of various families in this era. In that sense, THE WITCH feels truthful. The language used is English, yet foreign. Perhaps it's the old-fashionedness of the text or the twang of the delivery, but many times I had difficulty deciphering their words.
The cast is immaculate. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie are frightening in their portrayals as Thomasin's parents, William and Katherine. Their constant search for vindication is unrelenting. It's clear there's a love for their children, but how that love stacks up to the adoration they have for their deity is a fascinating case study. Supremely confident in front of his colleagues of the long forgotten compound, William's position is tested mightily and often. What never lacks, however, is his voice; it's alarmingly powerful, belying his gaunt frame. Katherine becomes especially unhinged as the film progresses. Her response is completely justifiable with the amount of plight she and her family faces. Thomasin's siblings are also excellent. The twins, Jonas and Mercy, play off their older counterparts well, and it's arguable that they're the most disturbing part of the film, as they spend their days drudging around in dirt and making conversation with the family goat, Black Phillip.
The two stars, however, are Thomasin and her brother, Caleb. They're the closest of the family, each helping one another out, many times at their own peril. Again, I bring up the harshness and uninhabitable nature of this period, but what these children go through--not only with the trials of the supernatural, but simply every day doldrums--is remarkable. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin. She is at the end of the age of innocence. Pubescence is evident, by her and her family. It is discussed that perhaps it's time for her to be shipped off, to be the matriarch of another family. This is only one of many demons she faces. In a world not lacking for hardships, she suffers the most. And she wears every pain that she earns on her face, and her body, and her blood-soaked clothes.
THE WITCH illustrates that effective panic can be orchestrated simply by the right location, candlelight, and a smattering of farm animals. In a world populated by evil, nothing is more sinister than the darkness found in our own hearts.