US (2015) Dir. Robert Eggers
The stereotype of witches as cackling, green-skinned crones performing hocus pocus magic spells wasn’t always so, especially many centuries ago when the devout believed in witchcraft was totemic of horrifying demonic arts.
In 1630, a Puritan English family in New England are expelled from their plantation for their contrasting interpretation of the New Testament. They set up a small farm in a remote part of the forest where father William (Ralph Ineson) tends to their meagre flock with eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and younger twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson).
Soon after settling in, mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) gives birth to a son Samuel but not long after when Thomasin was looking after him, Samuel disappears. In a panic Thomasin claimed a wolf took the baby but it was in fact a witch who took him. After this the family’s crops and livestock die and Katherine becomes unstable from losing Samuel, blaming Thomasin for everything and accusing her of bringing evil into the family.
The first thing that needs to be established about The Witch is that this is not your average horror film – in fact, one could argue it is not a horror film at all, at least in the traditional sense. Granted, there are a few gruesome scenes and it does revolve around witches and the Devil, but this is more in line with Hitchcock’s The Birds or the J-Horror classic Ringu in terms of delivering slow building psychological chills.
It is the central concern of Puritan religious belief which, for this writer, is where the truly unsettling power of this tale is found. I can’t say if writer-director Robert Eggers was making his own statement on the foibles of intransigent faith or if he simply was sharing his passion for folklore tales of witches, but there is a compelling argument that in this instance it does more harm than good.
Don’t take this as religious bashing however – the period setting of pre-Salem Witch trial era America simply means Eggers is reflecting the mindset of the times and it shows, at least I hope it does, how far religion in the civilised world has come in the last four hundred years. In other words, this is a reminder of a time when facts vs. belief would always end up a victory for belief.
To put this into context a little, Thomasin is a victim of circumstance but in her mother’s eyes, the lack of concrete evidence or any sense of rational or alternate perspective to support her defence means Katherine has her daughter condemned based on the word of God. Compounding matters further, the twins confide in Thomasin that a goat named Black Phillip spoke to them.
If you know your religious folklore, the Goat of Mendes will be a recognisable Satanic symbol, just one of the ways in which this film is both blatant for some and subtle for others, but doesn’t harm its overall impact. This is an important development to remember for later during one of the more powerful scenes, involving Caleb who met a voluptuous woman whilst out in the woods and eventually returns home in quite the state.
Decipher a coming-of-age allegory in this if you wish, and with so many layers to the tale already it wouldn’t be surprising if this were the case, but it is worth noting that Eggers has a long held fascination with witches and their mythology and has researched this extensively. To add further credence, much of the Ye olde English dialogue and the situations depicted here come from genuine documents from the period.
Speaking of which, the dialogue is one of the more unique facets of this presentation, sticking rigidly to the form, tempo and Shakespearean-esque thous, thees and doths spoken at the time. Whereas other writers would have used an approximation Eggers keeps it completely authentic. Admittedly, it takes a while to get used to it but once we are acclimatised we can see it brings more nuance to the characters.
Eggers’ quest for verisimilitude extends to the production which, while rich in faithfully reconstructed sets and wardrobe, is also very sparse as befitting the period. The film was shot entirely in natural light, fine for external day shots whilst internal scenes are lit only by candles. As bleak as this sounds it is key to creating the eerie atmosphere, the lack of visual flourish forcing the performances to keep us immersed in the moment.
What will work against it for many people however is that this is a slow film – we’re talking arthouse slow. It doesn’t pick up until almost fifty minutes in by which point some may have given up, quite a setback for a film that doesn’t break 90 minutes. However those with patience towards glacial pacing, the final act is taut and compelling viewing.
Vital to the film’s success is the commitment of the cast to their roles, although one might find it hard to get past the fact that William is in fact Finchy from The Office with a heavy beard. Kate Dickie is scarily intense as Katherine while the youngsters playing the twins are suitably bratty and handle their complicated dialogue very well.
Putting in two career making turns are Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, who impresses with his Exorcist topping possession scene and Anya Taylor-Joy, disproving the theory that models can’t act, providing the film with its conscience and its link to reality. However they are all blighted by poor audio recording and mumbled delivery so even those with superior hearing will likely need the subtitles.
Incorrectly marketed as a shocking horror film, The Witch is more cerebral and a psychologically disorientating tale of the supernatural, surely to disappoint anyone expecting a jump scare chiller. Its themes are open to interpretation whilst the ponderous pacing is less likely to cast a spell over mainstream audiences, making this a rather niche title.