★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A bleak tale of the fraying of a family’s trust, and the creepiest goat in the history of film.
Director Robbert Eggers has, in his film the Witch, presented us with a grim tale a 17th-century Puritan family brought low by the collapse of family bonds. It washes over you with unease, like a creeping winter rain. A pious and proud man, William (Ralph Ineson) is cast out from his New England village after a dispute with the village tribunal, regarding an interpretation of the Bible. William takes his family of six into the wilderness to farm a small plot of land near a wooded glen and proclaims that his faith will provide the riches from the land. He is a terrible farmer, however, and his crops fail and the prospects for the family looks bleak.
His eldest daughter, the teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy, in a star-making turn) manages to lose the baby boy Sam, while playing peek-a-boo, in a shattering turn… the baby simply vanishes. It is revealed to the audience that a witch has abducted the babe, and cements forever exactly how scary a witch can be. (munch munch!) Thomasin cannot explain what happened, and the family settles in on the idea that a wolf took the child, but it is clear to everyone that something much darker must be at play, but they are unwilling to yet admit it. It is a huge blow to a family already under the duress of the threat of starvation.
The family fabric then begins to completely unravel. The mother, Katherine (GoT’s Kate Dickie) resents Thomasin for losing Sam and is struggling to come to grips with her impending womanhood. William struggles with trying to provide, and crafts a series of lies to cover his mistakes. The young twins Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) accuse Thomasin of being a witch and harbor a weird fascination with the family goat, Black Phillip. And the noble middle brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw… what a name!) foolishly tries to be the brave savior of the family and gets himself lost and way over his head while trying to find Sam’s abductor. Notably, one of the few bits of bright colors in the movie is when the witch, in her seductive guise (Victoria’s Secret model Sarah Stevens) is wearing a seductive bright red. Noooo! Caleb! Don’t go to her!
The whole procession comes to a crashing conclusion as the family completely turns on each other, and the witch’s influence starts to seep into the family matters, pushing it to a final bloody brink. This is psychological horror at its best. Eggers has de-saturated this film to the point of making it almost black and white. Everything about this production is wholly convincing. The family speaks in ye-olde English that almost requires subtitles to understand. The film was shot with only natural daylight or candlelight for authenticity, and the woolen costumes looked spot on for the era. A huge round of applause too, for the child actors in this film, as they managed to nail the accents, and fit seamlessly into the production. Often times child actors can feel like anachronisms, modern kids in costume dramas, but not here. Also, Black Phillip is profoundly spooky… so hats off to the animal wranglers. When Black Phillip leaps around, it feels so wrong!
I know that the Witch isn’t for everyone. Amy, for example, HATES this movie. (we’ve argued at length about this) This movie is dreadful… in that, it is FULL OF DREAD. This is not a fun movie. It has no humor in it. It makes you wince. It does not follow a conventional horror motif, it doesn’t have the punch-and-recover cadence of a modern horror movie. It’s more like that with each psychological break-down, it is as if another weight gets added on to the emotional stack, and it slowly crushes you. The ending is oddly both horrifying and uplifting… neither a classic horror gut-punch or a happy relieving ending, which for this movie was a bit unexpected. To go back to my earlier metaphor, I had expected just one last heavy plate to be added, and to have been completely smashed flat at the end. I think I actually the end the way that Eggers presented it, in all its strange creepy celebratory way, better than a Romero-like complete downer.
So, this is not a gateway horror movie. You need to know that going into this film, that it has a singular pervasive and consistent tone, that it doesn’t let up, and it is bleak. But, it is also an excellent and intelligent film worthy of watching once you are ready.
The Witch is Rated R, and is available on DVD, Blueray, and is available on Amazon, Vudu, and YouTube.