“The reason it works is because of how succinctly and gradually [director Robert] Eggers shows his characters descending into unstable tension, giving into base emotions and fears.”
by Ken Bakely
I am told that at the start of the 1630s, the decade in which Robert Eggers’ The Witch takes place, the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed playing cards and dice. They were seen as sinful vices. Public, pagan celebrations of Christmas were also forbidden. It was considered anti-Christian. The early settlers of the North American colonies were strongly Puritan. They even saw members other denominations as intrinsically unholy.
We all know the reason that many Europeans decided to make the arduous voyage from their homelands to the wild, unexplored territories of the New World – they were after religious freedom, and once there, they intended to keep it at all costs. This led to what we now term as hysteria. Those ideologies won the day, and this came to a hilt by the end of the seventeenth century, with the infamous moral panic that was the Salem Witch Trials.
The Witch is a movie that does not know about what will happen in Salem, Massachusetts. It is a simple story, a “New England folktale”, according to the poster, about a devoutly religious family that is terrified of the prospect that one of their own has been possessed by the devil. There isn’t a single worse thing that could happen to any of them, including death itself. At the start of the film, the entire clan – parents William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), adolescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), prepubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twin toddlers Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and infant son Samuel (Axtun and Athan Dube) – are in the process of settling on a small farm outside of the main village in which they previously resided.
They have left because they were under the threat of expulsion from their church and their community. The local clergy have determined that William’s particular interpretations of the Bible are incompatible with the ideas most others have assumed. At first, they are happy to be away from the doubters. But soon, peculiar events start to take place. Samuel disappears inexplicably one day. Caleb falls severely ill soon afterwards. The twins claim that the family’s goat has begun to communicate with them. Katherine is certain that there is a dark cause behind all of this, and it’s not too long until the evidence becomes seemingly insurmountable. Ostracized from any nearby civilization, the family soon devolves into a state of raw, unfiltered paranoia.
The Witch is a terrifying movie. It is not scary because of jump scares, or blood, or any type of conventional horror tool – the reason it works is because of how succinctly and gradually Eggers shows his characters descending into unstable tension, giving into base emotions and fears. It’s the equivalent of dominoes knocking each other over, each event leading into the next as the totality of what occurs slowly builds on the remnants of the preceding details. By the end of the 92 minute runtime, we find ourselves at a loud, charged finale, which seems far removed from the docile scenes at the film’s start, yet Eggers’ evolution of the story makes it all fit in under the same dark interior logic.
The movie makes great strides in advancing its atmosphere. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography uses natural lighting. The nights seem oppressively dark. The moon doesn’t help – it’s only cold, dim, and pale. And outdoor scenes on overcast days are relentlessly gloomy. The actors’ tired faces and unkempt hair are presented as matters of fact – natural effects of their rural, primitive lifestyle and emotional stress – rather than an aesthetic choice to be over-emphasized. A lot of The Witch’s slow, creeping mood is attributable to the wise creative decision to build its world in an incremental way, and so when things start to take a turn for the worst, it feels more impactful.
Credit must also be given to the actors, especially the child performers, for their ability to recite Eggers’ King Jamesian, period accurate dialogue, purportedly lifted in portions directly from testimonials given at witch trials. Some may find it a bit obtuse at first (there were times when I switched on the subtitles for a few scenes), but the choice is one that pays off – it’s more evidence of The Witch’s drive as a fully engrossing production, one fully steeped in its setting, and capturing that sense of the lived-in coming into contact with the unknown, an idea central to its psychological foundation.
Eggers has said that the key to successfully pitching this film was keeping its concept simple. Indeed, there’s something to be said by how simple the logline at the center of this movie is, and how richly and provocatively it builds around its core. From its thorough devotion to a period setting to masterfully photographed surroundings, The Witch is a gravely foreboding success. As the family members slowly turn against each other, with a thick, dark, and unforgiving forest lying in the background, shadowy and mysterious, an intentionally imprecise sense of dread grows. Every successive event begins to layer in all the right places. A chill runs down your spine. Then, in the third act, the movie lays all its cards out on the table. You’re swept away.