Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately – Robert Eggers The Witch (or The VVitch: A New-England Folktale) is not for everyone. If you scroll down the bottom before reading this review, you may see that I give this a 4.5/5 and think ‘well, I’ll trundle along and go see this film I will’. If you’re familiar with my feelings about horror and cinema in general, and if you feel that you’re on the same wave length as I am, then skip this review and rush along to see The Witch right away. If you’re not sure that you match up to my feelings, then no worries, read on through my review.
The Witch takes place in the 1600’s and follows a family who is in the process of being ousted by their town. As outsiders, they set up home a days ride from their old village and try and live life as faithful to the word of God as possible. As they prepare for the winter, their faith is tested through mysterious occurrences that occur from various elements within the nearby woods.
Eggers wrote the script for The Witch after extensive research into material directly from the era his film is based. The inspiration from court documents, Puritan diaries and the Geneva Bible is evident through the rich dialogue that (as a title card explains at the end of the film) is often pulled directly from these sources. This dialogue alone helps strengthen the feeling that this is a film out of time. Often when films are set in period settings, the dialogue is either so steeped in the era that it becomes incoherent (as much as I appreciate Justin Kurzel’s MacBeth, it does run afoul of this issue), or attempts to make it coherent ends up modernising it to the point that it belies the era it’s portraying. Eggers manages to straddle the line perfectly with some truly rich dialogue. If you’re looking for your new quotable horror film, then this is possible the one for you – I know at least around our household there has been a lot of asking ‘wouldst thou like to live deliciously?’
Great dialogue is nothing if it’s not matched by great performances. Casting director Kharmel Cochrane and co. have cast perfectly here – mostly filling the cast with relative unknowns. Prior to settling in for this atmospherically unsettling film, I was only aware of Kate Dickie’s previous work (most notably the great Red Road). Dickie’s mother Katherine is joined by Ralph Ineson as the father, William, and their progeny – Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). It’s truly stunning to see that the younger cast members not only embody their characters perfectly, but manage to deliver the dialogue with aplomb.
Anya Taylor-Joy gives a whirlwind of a performance as the central figure. Her burgeoning Thomasin is an uneasy character to focus on. Taylor-Joy’s youthful features make the audience feel extremely uncomfortable. Pair this with the coming-of-age Caleb who is confused by his sisters leap into womanhood and the exploration of devout faith and fear of sin , and you have a great dichotomy that makes up The Witch. Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb delivers an equally stunning performance – echoing the great role of Caleb that Lucas Black played in the short lived American Gothic. I look forward to seeing both Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw in future roles as they fill the screen like they’ve been acting for much longer than their years active would suggest.
As the head of the family, Ralph Ineson appears like an effigy transported directly from the 1600’s. Ineson’s William is a striking figure who is trying to lead his family along a righteous path of living. As the dark grip of sin takes hold of his family, William fights it with his announcements of his faith and dedication to the Lord. Ineson’s performance of William is like a man possessed – he commands the screen wondrously; most notably in a fever dream like moment where one of his children fights against the ‘demon’ that grips their insides.
The Witch is not a horror film that will make you leap out of your seat with jump scares, or make you reach for the bucket with gore. It’s a horror film more in line with Ben Wheatley’s great Kill List. The Witch slowly wraps you up with a blanket of fear that eventually embraces you whole like the cold sweat from that aforementioned fever dream. For some, this type of horror may not be effective, but for me, this is exactly why I continue to watch horror films. Horror, just like comedy or drama, is a genre which can morph across many different styles. This is more an unsettling slow growing terror-piece rather than a scream-in-your-face knife-in-the-stomach blood-on-the-walls horror piece.
A horror film doesn’t always need to be qualified by how many hours it keeps you up at night. One can watch a ‘horror’ film and not be scared at all. While The Witch left me unsettled and hasn’t escaped my mind since watching it, it also may not be the sort of ‘horror’ that works for you. In that regard, I do feel that The Witch does work as a solid film that tells an interesting and immersive story that doesn’t entirely rely on being terrifying.
Eggers dedication to telling this kind of story as truthfully as possible is something that deserves to be applauded. Everything slots in place just right – of course, the dialogue and performances, but also the great set design and costumes help build the mood perfectly. Just like 2015’s Crimson Peak, the costumes and set design are as much of a character as the family are. Standing in for New England is a remote location in Ontario, Canada – I mention this simply because just like the dialogue, the set design and location feel like elements ripped out of another time period. It’s Eggers dedication to telling this story as accurately as possible that makes The Witch all the more impressive.
As mentioned in the introduction, this is a film that is not for everyone. Many may go in thinking that it’s ‘the talking goat film’, and while that is a part of the plot (a great part may I add), it’s such a small piece of the film that it would be a disservice to go in expecting to see a talking goat and be frightened by it. (It’s also worthwhile adding that a character like Black Phillip manages to work so well and not turn into an unintentional laugh because of Eggers dedication to the story.) Personally, I reacted so well to this genuinely unsettling film that I can’t wait to get back in and experience this story once again.
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
Writer: Robert Eggers