It’s very rare to say this, but everything about The Witch is exquisitely constructed.
Its acting, lighting, music, writing, production design, cinematography, editing, and direction all immediately impress. While, at the same time, they combine to create an innately bewitching tale that keeps you on tenterhooks all the way up until its grandiose but enthralling finale.
Even beyond its last shot, after The Witch has cut to black, there is one final revelation that not only adds a whole new complexion to the story but gives it a darker sheen, too. And, in the process, makes it even more unsettling and perverse.
But way before that reveal, The Witch does enough to warrant the huge amount of buzz that has followed it around since it premiered months ago in Sundance. The movie confidently builds upon its early ambiguity in a patient but daring style that hauntingly festers rather than jolting with scares. All of which is accomplished without resorting to the lame tricks and clichéd approach of mainstream horror tales. In fact, The Witch is almost proudly lo-fi and budget. Natural lighting is used to give the film a rugged realism, while the actions and responses of the naïve characters continually make you underestimate them, which pulls you into the puzzling world. It’s almost like a magician using sleight of hand. You know something explosively is going to happen with the tale, you’re just waiting for it to be unveiled.
A self-anointed New England folk-tale, The Witch is set in the 17th century, and revolves around a Puritan family that leave a guarded town to live on the edge of a New England wilderness. However, when their elder daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) allows their infant son to go missing under her care, the family starts to suspect that the nearby wood is the home to a lurking evil.
Rather than leaning on its titular ghoul for its scares, The Witch instead uses it as the catalyst, and it thrives because it focuses on the paranoia that grows throughout the family, and their subsequent collapse. It is character, rather than scare, driven. To simply label it as a horror film also would be doing it an injustice, though. Sure, as the horror aspects of the film increase, The Witch only becomes more engaging, as well as terrifying. But it’s so much more than that. It’s equally as thrilling, suspenseful, dramatic, and is so meticulous in its period setting that it matches any of its peers from these genres too. Which is even more remarkable considering its measly $1 million budget.
Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson (The Office) and Katie Dickie (Game Of Thrones), as well as Harvey Scimshaw, Ellie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson, are all revelatory in their performances as the disintegrating family, and without their increased dread The Witch simply wouldn’t work. Rather than ramming the family's ominous situation - they are also on the brink of starvation because of the harsh winter - down our throats, Robert Eggers instead allows the looming darkness to grow and overwhelm the picture. Mark Korven’s sinister, almost prophetic, score – which is immediately reminiscent of Johnny Greenwood’s for There Will Be Blood – is pitch perfect and emphatic, while Louise Ford’s edits arrive with a shuddering surprise.
The use of animals and nature also increases the dread of The Witch. The wilderness is presented as unforgiving and impenetrable, while the reactions and treatment of a goat, horse, rabbit, and dog are a foreboding to a threat that we are mostly in the dark about, and that The Witch’s characters seemingly have no match for.
The Puritan family turn to reading out psalms – something that’s always scary on film, especially in a dark hut – and Eggers really highlights the sense of dread that would have contagiously manifested itself during the period in such a situation, suggesting different, but never concrete, reasons and sins (thievery, leaving home, lying, incest) for why the eponymous sorcerer is now haunting them.
As an audience member, you feel more educated than these character, and, thus, a little more comfortable in your seat. And that’s exactly what Robert Eggers wants, because The Witch’s writer and director has you in the palm of his hand throughout. You just need to sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the early contenders for the best film of 2016.