A stunning feature film debut from writer/director Robert Eggers, The Witch feels like absolutely nothing else right now in the horror genre, which is only one of its many strengths. Taut, ripened with tension from start to finish, and anchored by a star-making performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch is a nightmarish exploration of female suppression and familial strife in pre-Colonial America that will have you thinking twice about ever having kids (or perhaps even goats).
At the start of The Witch, we are introduced to a devout family who has been ostracized by the small colony they reside in and must now move outside the safety of its confines. We watch as stalwart patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), pack up their kids to make a new life on the cusp of a sprawling forest. Their eldest daughter, Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), is left to care for her siblings most of the time, including Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger), as well as the family’s newest member, baby Samuel. One day, the unthinkable happens when Thomasin plays an innocent game of peek-a-boo with her youngest brother and he up and vanishes in an instant, with no trace of who or what snatched him left behind. While we learn Samuel’s unfortunate fate—he’s been taken by an old witch who wants the infant for a horrific ritual—the sense of unknowing begins to destroy the isolated family from the inside.
As the loss of their son takes a toll on both William and Katherine, the ramifications of their grief have the biggest impact on poor Thomasin, who can’t seem to catch a break. Their eldest is unfairly blamed by her mother, whose contempt for her own daughter rages on beyond just the heartbreaking events surrounding Samuel’s abduction, creating a divide in the once-strong family. As more tragedy befalls their clan, fear and paranoia set in, and William is forced to question everything about his faith, while Katherine suspects Thomasin of practicing witchcraft at the expense of their entire brood.
The Witch is wholly immersive in its approach, with an unprecedented veritable sense that immediately transports you into Thomasin’s horrific world that’s filled with danger, trepidation, and a cruel sense of injustice at every turn. Eggers’ devotion to authenticity in The Witch is truly admirable, taking much of his dialogue and story inspirations directly from documents and folklore from the 1600s, adding another layer of authenticity to the overall film.
While The Witch is certainly a movie more focused on building mood, atmosphere, and a sense of apprehension amongst viewers, that doesn’t mean Eggers shies away from creating some truly horrific scenes, including one in which we learn the fate of baby Samuel. It takes a lot to shake me as a viewer, but that scene is pure nightmare fuel, akin to a Grimm fairy tale brought to life. The Witch’s third act is so brutally unexpected and harrowing as well, that I can’t help but applaud Eggers’ ability to create something that seems so straightforward at the beginning and then taking a decidedly left turn with his story, going for broke with a boldly unrelenting finale. Some may not love his choices, but I always appreciate when a filmmaker takes some risks and with The Witch, Eggers has made an instantaneous fan out of me.
From a female perspective, it’s evident that Eggers is squarely taking on the oppressive nature of how women were treated in the 1600s, which also feels oddly applicable in some ways to the issues many are still facing in modern times. I generally don’t go into films looking for a feminist slant, but there’s no denying that The Witch confidently explores how we treat powerful women in society—young and old—and how the simplest betrayals can lead to the most disastrous circumstances imaginable.
A beautifully bleak depiction of how pride, mistrust, and heartbreak can tear apart families ever so subtly, The Witch is a masterful example of the power of great storytelling and is truly the first great pure horror movie of 2016. Every single facet of this film, from the direction to the performances to the production design and everything in-between, makes for a legitimately transcendent cinematic experience.
Movie Score: 5/5