If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.
“The Witch” is a horror movie based on New England folklore, directed by Roger Eggers. “The Witch” is Eggers’ directorial debut, and it’s a very impressive one – he won the Directing Award for the U.S. Dramatic Category at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and I can definitely see why. He pulls great performances from the child actors in the film, and creates an extremely tense atmosphere through brutal music and harsh cinematography; making “The Witch” a difficult but intriguing watch.
Before watching this film you’d be forgiven for believing that it’s about a wrinkly old woman with a broomstick and a cauldron. However, whilst “The Witch’s” drama does arise as a result of its titular character, the film isn’t really about the witch. “The Witch” is an examination of religion in the 1600’s and how its hold on a Puritan family leaves them helpless against the workings of the devil. It’s an isolated tale about people in crisis, fighting against forces much more powerful than themselves with prayer and penitence, when in fact they’d be better off if they ran a thousand miles. The fact that the family think that they can repel the evil forces which conspire against them by sending their thoughts towards the sky is actually quite unsettling, because their beliefs offer no physical benefits, and the longer they remain ignorant of the futility of that fact the more likely they are to die. Their belief is the source of their ignorance, and when all is said and done it’s what causes their downfall.
The film starts with the family’s excommunication from a plantation in New England, due to an unspecified crime. They must then rebuild their lives somewhere new, so they set up a farm on the outskirts of a large and slightly threatening forest (presumably because the forest will have food sources and water to sustain them). It doesn’t take long for this new oasis to turn into a hell on Earth, as Samuel, the baby of the family, is stolen by a witch during a game of peek-a-boo gone horribly wrong.
Most of that is apparent on the trailer, but I think I should make it clear that the film doesn’t then follow the family’s efforts to get the child back. This isn’t that kind of film, because ultimately you can’t fight the devil. I won’t get into what happens to the child, or what happens for the remaining hour and a half of the film, but be aware that it’s an uncomfortable and disturbing watch.
“The Witch” isn’t for everyone, the language is slightly archaic and a little obtuse, and if you see the horror genre as a series of creative jump scares I would suggest that it isn’t for you. It’s frightening because the things that occur on screen would actually be horrific if they happened to you, not because it makes you jump. It’s a quiet, bleak, and occasionally vicious tale about the devil working through people on Earth – so if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea I’d advise that you watch something else.
With that in mind, I should explain why I liked the film even though I found it disconcerting. “The Witch” tackles its plot with honesty; by which I mean that it doesn’t try to fool the audience into believing that if something so terrible were to happen to them they’d be able to overcome it. It’s the ultimate tale of bad things happening to good people, and it’s heavy focus on religion makes it all the more compelling from my perspective.
When the family face adversity they blame themselves, believing that they are being punished by God for their sins, rather than trying to find a practical solution to their problem – God’s silence in the face of this plight makes the whole film more unsettling.
It’s easy to watch the film with your own belief system in mind, because if you don’t believe in God then his absence in the film makes complete sense; however, I think that the film is much more interesting if you accept that God exists in the movie’s universe. The devil works through the witch – he answers her prayers and he gives her power – yet God doesn’t try to help the family in the same way. This leaves the question open as to whether or not the family really are being reprimanded for their sins (even though they are so devout that they verge on ridiculous), and leaves me wondering whether or not God (in this film) is in fact working through the witch to facilitate their punishment.
My favourite aspect of the film was definitely the sound, as the brutality of the score meshed perfectly with the events happening on screen. From the moment that the forest was introduced to the noise of strings being scratched, to the consuming note which ends the film, the sound creates a tormenting and harrowing tone which serves the movie admirably.
I also thought that the performances were brilliant, particularly those of Ralph Ineson – who plays the father of the family (William) – and Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays his daughter (Thomasin). Thomasin is the main character in the film; she’s starting her womanhood and beginning to see the hypocrisy that is inherent in her family’s beliefs, which makes her a compelling protagonist. Taylor-Joy portrays this internal conflict superbly, as she shows that Thomasin loves her family but also feels invisible to them, which makes the ending that bit more effective, as she casts off the shackles of her oppression.
On the whole, I thought that “The Witch” was exceptional for a directorial debut. The performances were superb, the sound was great, and the whole experience was intense. From my perspective, this is what the horror genre should aspire to – atmosphere is and always should be king. I accept that it isn’t for everyone, and that some people will find the slow-pacing jarring, but I found it utterly compelling.