“Blair who?” the book of shadows asked with amusement.
William (Ralph Ineson), the Puritan father of a 1630s New England family, chooses to leave the protection of a local village over his religious convictions, taking his entire family with him to farm on the edge of the wilderness. While her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) takes care of heavy chores when their father is out hunting, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) watches over her younger twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) — whose favorite pastime is playing with a huge goat they named Black Phillip. Her mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) spends most of her time tending to her infant brother Samuel, but while playing peekaboo with the infant one day to give her mother a break, Thomasin covers her face for only an instant before the baby disappears, setting off a series of sinister events that plague the family. Is God testing them, or has the family truly been abandoned to the Devil?
The trailers for The Witch gave little away: shots of the plain Puritan family, silent scenes of work and play, something moving just at the edge of one’s vision, and a pervading atmosphere of cold and creepiness. For a provisional family deeply entrenched in religion, are their unfortunate circumstances being orchestrated by an actual supernatural culprit, or is it all just plain old bad luck they need to assign blame to? Thomasin provides the audience’s point-of-view and serious doubts that the Devil is among them… but she could be dead wrong.
Dancing around the true nature of this film, the level of realism was something writer/director Robert Eggers reportedly demanded from his cast, billed as a “historical period supernatural horror film.” The cast list extends beyond the family, so we know something or someone is nearby, but the filmmakers keep their cards close to their chest until the very end of the movie. There is a tediousness in watching the film unfold — one might suggest viewers are meant to share in the torment. Once the biggest domino topples, all the horrible pieces start falling into place… and why Thomasin is fated to bear witness.
Continuing to avoid spoilers, there are a few schools of thought concerning the meaning behind the film. One is that this film is secretly about female empowerment, that Thomasin’s plight is also her opportunity for true freedom. Clever watchers will also notice a total of seven family members — a number of interest, to say the least. On the far end of the scale, perhaps the film is anti-God in nature, for what kind of benevolent entity would inflict such hardships or allow them to happen?
Steeped in symbolism, The Witch dares to tread into dark subjects and deadly repercussion. It isn’t for everyone — rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity — but as Eggers’ freshman film, we can only shiver with anticipation over what his sophomore effort will be. The movie runs at a slow pace and is certainly meant for adults in sharp contrast to the number of children in the cast. Whatever your world views, simply watching the film should leave your soul intact… mostly.
4 Skull Recommendation Out of Four