Think back to all those fairy tales and folk tales we heard growing up as kids. Things like Hansel & Gretel or Snow White or any of the classics where young kids trek into foreboding and dangerous forests. There’s always a witch in these stories. Some dangerous old hag who lives out in a creepy cabin in the woods and harnesses dark and dangerous powers that are (more often than not) gained through being in league with evil. Now ask yourself: where did the witch come from? Was she always there?
In a sense, writer/director Robert Eggers’ debut, The Witch, serves as an origin story of sorts for such a character. He’s taken his interest in folklore and in horror stories from earlier eras in New England history and gone to make a story about the Puritans’ worst nightmare. I mean, the subtitle to this movie is “A New England Folk Tale” and that’s not incorrect. But it’s a story that could also apply to the woods of Germany or of China. The dark, foreboding woods that are full of mystery and danger.
The Witch is the story of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her family in 17th Century New England. She’s the eldest daughter of William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), devout Puritans who opt to abandon the plantation they share with other families because these other families are not devout enough in their Christianity. Moving a day’s ride away to a clearing near the edge of the woods, the family sets about building a new life. Thomasin helps her mother care for the younger children, twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) and newborn Samuel, while her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) helps his father planting corn. It is a simple life that is full of toil and asking forgiveness for their sins and salvation from the fires of Hell. Until one day, baby Samuel disappears from under Thomasin’s care. Slowly, bad things begin to happen around the family that seem to hint at darker, more dangerous forces coming against Thomasin and her family. Forces that will tear her family apart at the seams.
I have to start by commending the work that the cast does. Ineson and Dickie, best known for their small roles in Game of Thrones, do well as the devout William and Katherine. They’re people of their faith, who seek to live the pious life that is demanded of Puritans in the 1670s. This faith is challenged when they are struck by tragedy after tragedy. As things spiral, the weight of things unsaid and secrets held crush them against the demands of their faith. The smaller kids are not asked to do much, but their interactions become key in the story as it unspools. Particularly their playmate: the black family billy goat, whom they take to call Black Phillip. Scrimshaw does really well as the on-the-cusp of manhood Caleb. His stolen glances at his sister’s bosom are both disturbing and sad while his attempts at keeping the peace in his family is of the kind that all persons who’ve seen their parents fight will share. He has a later moment when he must display faith and madness and he nails it well.
The central performance though falls to Taylor-Joy as it is her Thomasin who will both bear the brunt of her family’s tragedy as well as being directly involved in every aspect of it. For someone whose biggest role so far is a few appearances on TV’s Atlantis, she handles the burden very well. Thomasin is a girl on the verge of womanhood in an age where that is a source of lust and fear. She’s inquisitive and challenging while trying also to be a rock for her family when things start falling apart. Her brother tries to help her out. Her younger siblings see her as the cause of the problems. Her father has no one else to turn to. And her mother seems to blame her for the loss of her infant son. And Taylor-Joy responds well to all of them and makes it so that we know what she’s thinking at all times.
Filming out in the remote Kiosk, Ontario, Eggers and his cast and crew set out to put their audience in the shoes of this family. Though the plantation they left is but a day away, you get that sense of being completely and totally on your own. When baby Samuel disappears, there is no help coming. When crops turn poor or milk and eggs go short, you get that sense that this family might well starve. Between Eggers, cinematographer Jarin Blashcke and set director Mary Kirkland, you come to feel that this is 17th Century New England and that the tiny home that William and Katherine have built is but a speck in the vast wilderness where anything can happen. I must also commend the score by Mark Korven, which is dissonant and disturbing and manages to hint at all the troubles and dangers that lurk in the shadows of the woods.
Let me say that this is not a straight-up horror movie. By which I mean that it is not full of jump scares and quick horror moments. If you’re looking for a movie like The Conjuring or Insidious, this isn’t it. In fact, I’m going to tell people looking for a quick horror fix to not go see this movie. You’ll only come out disappointed and bored by it. There are moments of fear and moments of horror, but this is a more psychological horror movie. It’s not until the end, when things get really bad, that the supernatural elements that are hinted at come to the forefront. So if you’re going seeking that out, you’ll be upset. Perhaps they could have been brought out more to the forefront and earlier in the story – so that when they do arrive, they’re not so unexpected. Were it not for a few key scenes, I might have thought that it was all in the family’s heads and that this was more about Puritanical terror run amok.
I also must forewarn folks that Eggers directed his cast to speak in Jacobean English. Which means that their dialogue can be sometimes difficult to discern for modern ears. It is age-appropriate and it allows for a further submerging into the world and the tale that Eggers spins. Even so, there’s instances when the most attentive audience member will pray for subtitles in this thing. Particularly in scenes when all the cast is shouting at one another furiously. It could get confusing if you’re not paying attention.
So I’ve said it’s not a conventional horror movie and that it might need subtitles though everyone speaks English. I must have hated it, right? No. On the contrary, I liked it for what it was. This is a psychological art horror movie. It’s more akin to The Others or The Orphanage or Session 9, where it is telling you a story in its own pace and letting you get comfortable with everything that’s happening as it slowly unravels. Why do that? Because it allows for other themes to start emerging. Ideas about religious fervor and pride going before a fall. Ideas about family tragedy and how they can either serve to bring people together or tear them apart. And, most notably, ideas about women’s roles and feminism.
Because so much of the myth of the witch is tied around the ideas of what women’s roles in society could be and where they could gain power to stand up to regimented and expected roles in patriarchal societies. And ideas like these hover over the character of Thomasin. You see it in the way her chaste sexuality is drawing the unintentional attention of Caleb, who can’t help but stare at her bosom. You see it in how she’s rejected by her younger siblings as she grows in importance around their homestead. And it is hinted in the way her mother rejects her more and more as the story unfolds. As Thomasin grows in importance, her mother seems to be taken aback and set more against her. Is that grief or jealousy? Regret or shame? Thomasin tries to be the good daughter and a kind sister and a source of strength for her family, but it keeps backfiring on her. Again, all of these various thoughts are merely hinted at – they’re not out and obvious. However, it’s difficult to miss them.
So what do I think of The Witch? I think it’s a decent movie. I think that the care that went into making it is evident. The audience comes to know the family of Thomasin as their lives fall apart. I would say that I’d recommend it be watched at home, with subtitles on and plenty of time to absorb it all. It is not an easy movie to sit through but, if you do give yourself to it, it brings an interesting story that can be engrossing and disturbing. When all is said and done, this New England folk tale tells us where witches come from.
If only all monsters came from the woods.