Lately it seems like everyone is going crazy for mass hysteria. In tone and subject matter, The Witch follows on the heels of last year’s superb The Falling in grounding a supernatural story with eerily believable psychology, basing its plot around people reacting to the uncanny in each other.
What The Witch brings to that idea is a magnified focus on one family, and a puritanical setting that makes religion a vital part of the supernatural threat. Details are supplied so sparsely that the family name is never mentioned, but their faith and their otherness are clear from the beginning. In the opening scene the family’s patriarch William (Ralph Ineson of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter fame) is excommunicated for his instantly obvious pride. He leads his family to build a new farm doubly separated from the packed plantation by its own walls and the forest’s wall of trees, where the rest of the action takes place.
Focusing exclusively on the family results in an efficiently told tale, with the plot beats covered quickly so that time can be taken on exploring their ramifications. As soon as the family is established five minutes in, its youngest child is taken from right under the gaze of protagonist Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the cycle of blame can begin. From that point members of the family begin turning on each other for reasons large and small, as they all slowly come to believe that a sinister presence is among them.
Even with the family reduced to six members, the farmhouse feels cramped. Several chiaroscuro shots of everyone huddled around a single source of light away from the house’s shadows vividly shows how hemmed in they have come to feel. In that looming environment, new writer-director Robert Eggers cranks up both natural and unnatural threats in turn.
For much of the the film the danger isn’t witches and sorcery so much as spite, mistrust and regret; by the halfway point the supernatural can be almost forgotten as the script focuses on the intertwined issues of self-image and the mistrust of others. The two older kids’ outlooks are shown to diverge as they remember their old home life in England differently, while the mother Katherine (Kate Dickie, Prometheus) tells her husband, “I never meant to be a shrew to thee. I know I am one.” Even the film’s bloody climax is kicked off by a decision William makes based on his teetering self-image.
Before that though, the real horror of the film’s second half begins. If the first half will be too slow for some tastes, that built up energy is released to devastating effect. Any doubt that The Witch is genuine horror quickly disappears – some moments in the film’s final third remain in the mind some time afterwards.
Of course that slower first half is also useful because the characters’ mannered speech can take so long to get used to. Here the film gets a pass for much of its dialogue being taken from period sources, which elevates it past the faux-old-fashioned language of M Night Shyamalan’s surprisingly tonally similar The Village. Still, the language is an initial stumbling block for a film so dependent on atmosphere, and seemed to also be an issue for Harvey Scrimshaw, whose initially stilted performance as the oldest boy Caleb only comes into its own when the horror begins.
On the whole though, the cast are equal to the challenge. Even Ellie Grainger – who looks scarcely older than a toddler as she plays surely the creepiest twin outside of The Shining – is remarkable. Vitally, Anya Taylor-Joy is perfect at the story’s centre, holding together a film full of other relative unknowns.
While the varied pacing and specific language might limit people’s engagement, once the horror truly begins it is relentless and offers some unforgettably alarming images. The characters’ puritanical beliefs start to seem much more reasonable in the face of scenes that feel genuinely demonic.
Even beyond those individual scenes, this uncommonly dense film leaves plenty to unpack between its takes on family life, religion, and the female body. Its plotting is sparse and its run time short, but it is packed throughout with ideas that will stay with many of its viewers for a long time to come.
Dir: Robert Eggers
Scr: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Prd: Daniel Bekerman
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
Music: Mark Korven
Country: USA and Canada
Run time: 90 minutes
In UK cinemas from 11 March 2016