“The Witch” lets you know right away that it’s not messing around.
Within 15 minutes of the new horror movie, a ghastly, gruesome act has occurred, a threat has been explicitly revealed and the dread has already crept in bone-deep.
“The Witch” is not a pleasant experience. But it is a masterpiece.
The control of tone, tension and theme would be astounding even from an old master. That the film is writer/director Robert Eggers’ first makes one wonder if the filmmaker didn’t strike a deal with the devil.
Eggers, who had previously worked as a production designer, brought “The Witch” to Sundance way back in January 2015, when it was met with unanimous praise.
More than a year later, “The Witch” comes to American audiences as one of the most confident debuts in recent memory. It’s also one of the strangest and potentially most polarizing movies to get a wide release in quite some time.
Some will love “The Witch.” Some will be bored to tears. Some will be offended at where the film goes and how far.
This is not a movie that will draw many mild reactions.
“The Witch” takes place in 1630s New England, where a Puritan family has been banished from its community for unspecified reasons. The severely pious William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) set out with their five children into the wilderness and settle in a clearing next to a sinister forest. William proclaims that “this wilderness will not consume us,” but he doesn’t know what lives in the woods.
Some time after arriving, the family has its farm up and running. But before long, one of the children goes missing, the crops begin to fail and accusations start flying around about who might be in league with Satan. It’s a sort of microcosm of the Salem witch trials that will come 60 years later, though it works as allegory for just about any tale of persecution you can think of, religious or otherwise.
Most of the family’s paranoia is aimed at the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Thomasin has doubts — about her faith, about her parents’ ability to keep them all alive. She’s also on the brink of womanhood, which her slightly younger brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), hasn’t failed to notice.
The youngest siblings, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) — the creepiest pair of twins since “The Shining” — are pointing their fingers and crying “Witch!” at Thomasin. Their source is the family goat, Black Phillip.
Eggers spent four years researching the stories and language patterns of Puritanical documents to write his screenplay. The outcome is that the characters speak in an era-accurate old English dialect. As such, the dialogue can be a struggle to follow. Viewers will have to work to parse meaning, though lines like “You reek of evil!” and “Did ye make some unholy bond with that goat?” are clear enough.
Eggers’ efforts at authenticity go far beyond language. This is a production that created a workable 17th-century farm and hand-stitched the costumes and built a house out of imported hand-riven oak.
The obsessive detail with which “The Witch” was made makes a great case for fussiness. This story wouldn’t work if the world weren’t wholly convincing, if our immersion into it weren’t absolute.
In a more macro sense, “The Witch” is one of those rare films in which all the elements work in harmony — the whole would be seriously diminished if any one piece were taken away.
The gorgeously stark cinematography by Jarin Blaschke was shot almost entirely using natural light and triple-wick candles. The score by Mark Korven, though sparsely used, is evil and oppressive. The editing (Louise Ford) boosts the film’s anxiety by orders of magnitude — a long take will smash cut to a moment of violence (or at least wood-chopping).
And the performances. Ineson and Dickie (both perhaps best known for their work in “Game of Thrones”) are great as the flawed but sympathetic parents. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw are preternaturally gifted young actors. Truthfully, the relentless intensity in which the actors had to perform made me a little concerned for everyone’s well-being. This is raw stuff.
And it should be reiterated that “The Witch” is not going to be for everyone. Its precision and deliberate pace make it closer to an art film than a Friday night popcorn flick, albeit an art film punctuated by some blood-curdling, mind-destroying imagery. This is not a horror film for fans of Craven and Carpenter but Bergman and Dreyer, two filmmakers Eggers has cited as influences.
But those who fall under the movie’s spell are going to fall hard. This is bold, blasphemous, subversive filmmaking that actually has the brains and talent behind it to deliver on all its dark promise.
“Witch,” thou art worthy.
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Director: Robert Eggers
Rating: R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Theaters: Aksarben, Alamo Drafthouse, Bluffs 17, Majestic, Oakview, Regal, Twin Creek, Village Pointe, Westroads