REVIEW: The Witch [2016]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 92 minutes | Release Date: February 19th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: A24
Director(s): Robert Eggers
Writer(s): Robert Eggers

“We shall conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.”

I find it funny that the Satanic Temple has “endorsed” Robert Eggers‘ stunning debut The Witch considering its pro-Catholic message. The first thing we see is William (Ralph Ineson) standing before his 17th century Puritan plantation’s governors as his family is excommunicated and exiled into the neighboring New England woods. They believe they can survive alone once happening upon a tract of land with which to build a small farm, but without God’s protection tragedy befalls them. Suddenly the corn crop dries up and threatens starvation. Then a fifth child (Samuel) is born without the means to baptize him. Next come the kidnappings. A witch is certainly among them: one we know resides inside the forest. They believe eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is to blame.

Had they lived a righteous life—we don’t know why their church abandons them—none of what transpires would occur. This is the power of God’s will and his reach to hold his flock close against the powers of evil. So maybe I was wrong. Maybe The Witch is anti-Catholic in its depiction of devout consumed. It’s a commentary on the fickleness of the church and its archaic rule system enforced to bend parishioners to its every whim. After all, despite William and Katherine (Kate Dickie) holding onto their faith, the first sign of trouble turns them on those they love. God and the Devil become more real than their children’s word. To cleanse their own souls they’d willingly offer up their own flesh and blood as penance.

This is where the film’s true power lies—the cowardice of man and the survivalist drive to blame everyone and everything for its own failings rather than admit fault. This is how powerful the church was four hundred years ago, a time when God was an omnipresent force of good and evil. He was vengeful and spiteful, or at least those ruling in His name were. They led with an iron fist, throwing those they believed heretical out while the victims let their retained piety ensure such a severing meant something. So when the baby is stolen from the arms of his sister, fear states the reason as his lack of a christening. The child now burns in Hell, paying for the actions of his father.

It’s a harsh reasoning, but one the letter of the Bible corroborates. When young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) asks about it because everything he’s ever learned says it’s true, William refutes it despite our knowing he thinks the same thing. But two tragedies are still coincidence. The crops are due to the weather and the year in which they needed them to flourish, Sam’s disappearance the product of a wolf because no other explanation makes sense. Only when Caleb vanishes, his returned body screaming an undying love for Jesus Christ to save his soul does folktale become reality. Now blame must be given to fate, William, Thomasin, or whoever else might accidentally have made a pact with the Devil. Something’s happening and fear quickly expunges love from the equation.

Eggers therefore creates a witch story wherein the witch is nothing but a force to propel the true plot forward. That doesn’t mean the depiction of her evil isn’t creepily conceived with giant mortar and pestles grounding flesh or robotically slow movements of malice: Bathsheba Garnett and Sarah Stephens provide those and more. But their actions are less important than the result. We don’t need to know what they do to their victims because the real drama lies in the survivors’ reactions back home. How quickly before they turn on each other? Before fairy tale and mysticism replace common sense? And as an added wrinkle: when do we in the audience understand their evil exists? The psychological strain is paramount, but the cause isn’t in their heads.

A caption before the end credits explains how much of the dialogue—presented in Old English specific to the era alongside authentic light illuminating night scenes with Caravaggio-like chiaroscuro—was taken directly from old tales of witches and occult. These were events that happened or were believed to have happened that remained unexplained through a lack of detective savvy and desire to question whether God and Satan had the power to inflict such pain in the physical world. This gives William and Katherine’s young twins’ (Ellie Grainger‘s Mercy and Lucas Dawson‘s Jonas) playfully sinister actions a chilling slant. To think that people could truly believe the giggling troublemaking of six-year olds singing songs and “talking” to their billy goat Black Phillip was the Devil’s work is unfathomable.

But what if it was? What if the stories were true? This is Eggers success: he’s drawn them into a tale that never pretends to be fantasy. He doesn’t hide the witch looming over the ensuing chaos—we know she exists whether witch or crazy woman psychotically wreaking havoc on unsuspecting travelers. In his world witchcraft is more than tall-tale, its impact swift and unrelenting. The question isn’t whether or not it will be revealed or brought to justice. It’s instead whether or not anyone will survive to speak of what happened first-hand. And if only one remains once the dust settles, will anyone believe his/her account? What if survival therefore hinges on one’s ability to embrace the same evil that destroyed his/her life?

The cast is fully aware of the tone and each plays his/her role with the utmost severity. Even though the subject matter is outlandish and supernatural, the characters make it so we feel it’s as real as the ground they stand upon. This is The Witch‘s main source of fright—tensely quiet moments of their fear onscreen transferring to us through empathy rather than jump scares. Don’t expect to jump at all because Eggers isn’t interested in cheap tricks. He’d rather lull us into a state of trepidation and subtly bring forth his evil from the shadows as though it was there all along. It’s a miraculous debut shot with a sure hand and absolute faith in the horror’s effectiveness to stand on its own.

[1] Anya Taylor-Joy. Credit: Photo by Rafy, courtesy of A24
[2] Ralph Ineson. Credit: Photo by Rafy, courtesy of A24
[3] Anya Taylor-Joy. Credit: Photo by Rafy, courtesy of A24

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