By: Brandon Wilhelm
This film will infest my mind like a disease. So affecting are the images presented (they do not assault, let me make that very clear) that they flash over and over again even as these words spill out onto the page—a mad fever dream that haunts me long after I have left the theater, shaken and disturbed. The Witch by Robert Eggers is not for the faint of heart, nor the average horror buff, either. In this world, set in New England in the 1600s before the ever-infamous Salem Witch Trials, the characters speak in Olde English, the colors are devoid of life (save red, for it pops like the deathly apple that beckons to Snow White) and the animals know something we do not.
Every corner of the frame is dreadfully unsettling, from the drab skies to the dark tree lines, and though there are no cheap jump scares to be had, one often has the feeling that something terrible is about to unfold. Even after the credits begin rolling, I could not shake the overwhelming sensation that my skin was still crawling, every hair standing on end. The film looks and feels like a real nightmare.
Thomasin and her family are devout Protestants. So devout that the Church even wishes to exile them beyond the safe confines of their village to the dark woods that lie beyond. A day’s ride is all it takes for them to find the “Kingdom of God” where they raise their arms in ecstasy at the bliss they will surely find in the small patch of greenery that borders a very dark forest. A year (or two, the film does not bother with timelines so as to further disorient us) passes and they have settled a quaint, cozy farm on this plot. Then, the disintegration begins.
I will not bother to go further into plot specifics, as this will not help you here. The occurrences that beset the family come in all manner of depravity. An infant goes missing in the most chilling fashion. One expects it to be the focus of the remainder, but it is quickly dispensed with, getting down to the real aesthetic of this film. Eggers is not interested in giving you what you expect out of the subject matter. He is far too savvy a craftsman for that.
This event is a sort of induction into a new kind of terror. Yes, you will see the titular character. Many times. The thing is, this is not an instance where your imagination dreams of something much worse when it lurks in the shadows and then disappoints you when it steps into the light. No, this creature is extremely frightening, but it is the effect it holds over the family that is awful to behold. Firmly ingrained in the period with immaculate detail that does not favor one single aspect of the production, the religious nature of the mother and father, played with great nuance by Katie Dickie and Ralph Ineson (both Game of Thrones alums), are almost as monstrous as the witch that harasses their family.
Though it is obvious to us that her presence plagues the strange events that circle around them, it is not obvious to them, and their suspicions turn to certainty with alarming escalation. The children fare no better. Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson are the obligatory unsettling twins, and Harvey Scrimshaw is a wonder as the second-eldest Caleb. Above all, though, it is Anna Taylor-Joy who commands the screen as Thomasin. All of them are newcomers, and they astound for being so young, but I see Taylor-Joy’s star rising in the west.
Gathering my thoughts, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this to anyone willing to seek out a traditional horror movie. You will not only be disappointed, but disturbed and possibly even offended. Eggers does not flinch in depicting the darkest details of his tale of terror, and the results are often very alarming. By the end, I was begging for a reprieve from the dread I was drowning in, but, that is what makes this a modern masterpiece. The final twenty minutes, alone, are worth the descent into madness.