The Witch

The Witch – 2016

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

Director: Robert Eggers

Words: N. Scatcherd

The title card for The Witch actually reads as The ‘VVitch – A New England Folktale’. This should give you some idea of both how straight-faced the film is, and also of how much it really grounds itself in its grimy, miserable setting of 1630s New England wilderness. The old-fashioned spelling of ‘witch’ aside, the film’s meticulous attention to detail ranges from the clothes to the ‘ye olde worlde’ 1630s dialogue, full of its doomy utterances of Hell and damnation.

The story follows a family evicted from their Puritan plantation for “the sin of pride”, and forced to eke out an existence of exile in the surrounding woodland. Ralph Ineson is William, the surly father who constantly opines that God will deliver the family from their hardships if they work hard, while their humble home is tended to by his wife Kate (Dickie) and their children – teenage Thomasin (Taylor-Joy); Caleb (Scrimshaw); and twins Mercy and Jonas (Dawson). However, when the youngest child disappears, eyes turn to the deep, dark woods – and then to within the family itself, as religious hysteria and accusations of witchcraft threaten to tear them apart far quicker than any supernatural happenings.

Some marketing for the film may lead one to believe that they’re in for a thrill a minute, jump scare-heavy endurance ride. Instead, the film actually uses some genuinely creepy sound design and clever editing tricks to constantly keep the viewer on edge. The film seems more interested in keeping you uncomfortable rather than allowing any of the catharsis of a quick ‘boo!’ scare, and it works admirably. Some of its most effective and unsettling scenes don’t involve any direct witchcraft stuff at all, but draw dread more from the growing atmosphere of paranoid mistrust and resentment in the family, which of course builds to a blood-splattered climax which – even when it arrives – is smart enough to know what to show, and what to infer.

The performances are very good, with Ineson in particular having a knack for the strange, off-kilter dialogue, and Kate Dickie bringing some palpable fear, doubt and sorrow to her role, as a mother who seems to be losing her husband, her children and her faith in God all at once. Taylor-Joy is very compelling as Thomasin, who is first blamed for the disappearance of her brother, then accused of being evil altogether. The mounting intensity of these accusations really showing in her increasingly haggard physicality, and the expressiveness of her face (her eyes seem capable of going wider than should be possible) and she remains a magnetic presence throughout.

While a subject like a malevolent witch living in the woods may sound hokey, The Witch maintains a tone of sombre-faced seriousness by throwing itself into its religious themes, and remembering that the best horror films imply more or as much as they show outright.