“What went we out into this wilderness to find?”
Robert Eggers’ new film The Witch is startling, to say the least. Critics love it, but audiences don’t seem to know what to make of it. This first line represents, in my opinion, a microcosm of the film’s principal dread. To watch The Witch is to embark on an uncertain trek into a chaotic and unknowable world, stumbling into a thorny bushes in the dark. You might emerge oblivious to what’s just happened to you, but you’ll be pulling out the splinters for days.
This is Eggers’ directorial debut, a fact which is revealed not by a lack of polish but by the inescapable feeling that one has never seen anything quite like it before. The story is set in New England in the 1630s and begins as a family of six is excommunicated from their Puritan plantation. They then set up a remote settlement of their own, perched on the edge of a dense forest. From this point on, most of the suspense is derived from the insidious accumulation of strange happenings. Events descend into Dionysian disorder, in a way that reveals the fault lines in the family’s relationships. This is a film about witchcraft that isn’t actually about witchcraft – this is simply the guise that cleverly conceals a story about grief, parental hypocrisy, incest, zealotry, womanhood and New-World anxiety. It doesn’t shy away from any of these topics, and is frequently quite shocking, as a result.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that so effectively addresses the psychological trauma of the North American settler, the dark side of pioneer spirit. Nature is callous and unknowable, and threatens to creep into the home and infiltrate one’s life if not actively kept at bay. A family, alone in a haunted environment, surrounded by the unforgiving hinterland, might recall the Torrances or the crew of the Nostromo. If horror can teach us anything about families, it’s that isolation is not the path to peaceful, happy relationships.
I heard some audience members in the cinema express their disappointment with the film, claiming that is was bleak and pointless. Certainly, if you’re expecting a fun thrill ride, or really anything analogous to most contemporary horror, then you are bound to get more – or rather, less – than you bargained for with The Witch. This is not to say that Eggers doesn’t make use of horror conventions and clichés, but rather that he does so in such a completely different way and in such an unusual context that I, and many others, found the experience invigorating. I was not frightened, really, but I was thoroughly discomforted whilst simultaneously in awe at the beauty of the production.
The film looks gorgeous, even down to the actors’ distinctive faces, which almost make the characters seem like apt illustrations in a storybook. The costuming, muted palette and extensive use of natural light conspire to create a convincing period piece. The dialogue, written in convincing, Caroline-era English (It’s nice to see someone who knows their thous, thines, and thees) helps with this effect without becoming obtrusive. The score is an unsettling assortment of dischords, buzzing and shrieking that suggests the cacophony of a coven’s ritual. The father’s (Ralph Ineson) gravelly voice reverberates throughout the cinema and builds anxiety towards the character. On that note, I would be remiss not to mention Anya Taylor-Joy’s surprisingly understated performance as the family’s eldest daughter, Thomasin.
You might like this film if you particularly enjoyed last year’s The Babadook. Both are similar in terms of narrative pacing, fairy-tale elements and the emphasis on shame and resentment in family relationships. Where they differ is that The Witch arguably lacks the accessibility and cohesiveness of its distant, Australian cousin. The titular (no pun intended) villain doesn’t quite feel consistent (perhaps due to the inherent mutability of witches) and many audience members will find that the viewing experience can only be described as “a drag”. But if that doesn’t bother you – and it doesn’t me – then crack on.
The Witch opened last month in the US and hit UK cinemas on the 11th of March.
Beware and take care,