The Witch opens with Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her family standing trial. It appears they’ve offended their fellow New England settlers and they can either admit their sins against society or be banished. William (Ralph Ineson), the family patriarch, opts for banishment and so The Witch begins with an immediate sense of loss.
We watch as Thomasin and her family pull away from their hometown in a wagon, filled to the brim with people and tattered belongings. In an instant, they’re alone and unsure of everything. Director Robert Eggers has the sadness set in immediately and once he’s got you on edge, he refuses to pull you back. It’s all tension from here on out.
Once Thomasin and her family find a new place to set up their farm, they get to work. William and his eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) tend to the crops. Thomasin takes care of her younger siblings (the twins) as if they were her own. Not only does she discipline them, she washes clothes, tends to the animals and handles endless other chores. Their mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) oversees all, but is currently obsessed with her youngest, Samuel. It's easy to see why because he is an obscenely adorable infant. When Katherine isn't doting on baby, Thomasin looks after him. During one of those times, in the middle of a game of peekaboo, he's snatched. Samuel vanishes with unsettling speed into the woods surrounding their isolated farm. This is the first time Eggers truly grabs you by the throat and it's a serious rush.
Eggers builds tension throughout the first half of the film which eventually culminates in visceral fear. The Witch is chock-full of tragedy. This broken family is stuck in the middle of nowhere, dealing with a missing infant and a borderline catatonic matriarch. Not only that, the eldest son feels compelled to be the hero and their dad is struggling to hold them all together. By the end of film, everyone is suspect. The Witch is a story of good intentions, blatant evil and insidious distrust.
The satanic references in this movie are disturbing, and the extreme nature of the violence portrayed on screen is downright revolting. When you’re a horror fan, this all spells success. Anya Taylor-Joy brings us a frightened, headstrong, bright and somewhat strange Thomasin. She’s at the center of this tale and she always gets blamed for everything that goes wrong. Tragedy seems to follow her most closely and so she becomes an easy target. Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Thomasin is quietly intense and unsettling. Thomasin is the easiest one to relate to in this kooky bunch and that's due in great part to Taylor-Joy's performance.
To be fair, every performance in this movie is top notch, and each portrayal is equally unnerving in its own right. Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are the creepiest twins I’ve come across since The Shining. The scene where they’re breathing steadily, in unison, was terrifying. Kate Dickie is severe, overbearing and downright mean in her portrayal of Katherine. Ralph Ineson radiates unhinged energy in every scene. Together, the cast is brilliant.
The creep factor is strong with The Witch, but it sure does take a long time to reach peak creep. Fortunately, this movie is legitimately scary. Some scenes are downright disgusting and most others are eerie and unnerving. The intense opening sets a somber tone from the start, but what it doesn’t do is thrust you into the story. Eggers instead chooses to reveal the story slowly and elegantly. Every scene in the first half of this film is a diabolical tease.
Normally, I’m all for delayed gratification, but not this time. Unfortunately, I felt it took entirely too long to for me to figure out what the hell was going on in this film. Yes, this is most likely because I’m a numbnuts, but that wasn’t the only reason.
The dialect spoken throughout the film was somewhat difficult to understand at first. Luckily, after a while, the awkwardness fell away. What I was never able to overcome was my inability to make out most of what came out of William’s mouth during that pivotal opening scene. I was paying close attention, but all I heard was mumbling and talk of banishment. Later in the film, there was another critical scene playing out in front of my eyes, but again I couldn't discern what was being said. All I could see was William talking to his eldest son. It was clear they were talking about something important, something they were supposed to keep secret, what that secret was, I had no clue. Well, until the movie was over and I was able to ask my friend what the hell was said.
Ultimately, that sense of confusion amped up my anxiety levels. I suppose that’s a good thing when it comes to horror movies in general. Nevertheless, the deliberately slow story development, coupled with muddled dialogue--in an archaic dialect no less--kept me from truly enjoying what I was watching early on. Once Robert Eggers began to pick up the pace of the storytelling, I fully gave into The Witch. Those early hints at sinister activity and that unsettling fog of uncertainty eventually turned into blatant satanic symbolism and full on possession. Not only that, in the end, all that meticulously built up dread finally finds its outlet and it's one hell of a bloody release.
If you’re extremely impatient (like me) give this movie ample time to get under your skin. Believe me when I tell you that it’s worth the investment. However, be aware that you’re going to see an elegantly made horror flick. This is no slasher movie. Do not let that initial disturbing act of violence fool you. The Witch is not a gore fest, jump-scare extravaganza. No. Robert Eggers aims to shake you to the core and in my case, he was successful. Give this one a go if you can keep your mind open and you have the patience to get through that markedly gradual tension build. Slashers are scary, but watching people break as all hope in their eyes evaporates, is horrifying.
The Witch - B-
B- =This is a pretty good time, and you should give it a whirl. You never know, you might enjoy it more than you think going in. It has its pitfalls, but overall worth your time.