In spite of deep religious beliefs, fear and superstition was arguably an equal if not greater influence on the lives of early settlers. It’s one of the key reasons witch hunts have a significant role in American history. It was simpler to assign responsibility for unexplained and/or devastating events to an evil entity (Devil) or his servant than to endure it without recourse. By ridding themselves of the so-called perpetrator, they presumably remove the possibility of recurrence. In The Witch
, an innocent lie snowballs into indefensible condemnation and self-fulfilling prophesy.
Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) family is exiled from the safety of the town and forced to live on the edge of the woods after her father (Ralph Ineson) publicly challenges the church. With four younger siblings, she is shouldered with additional responsibilities that have multiplied in their new living situation. Then, while in Thomasin’s care, the youngest child suddenly disappears. The initial and most logical explanation is a wolf, but soon their thoughts turn to something more sinister inhabiting the forest. When another child is harmed in her company, accusing eyes are turned in Thomasin’s direction. At the same time, she tries to divert attention to the younger twins who appear to have secret conversations with a menacing looking goat called Black Phillip. As fingers are pointed in every direction, it may grow too late for anyone to save them from the real threat.
This film has little in common with more traditional, mainstream horror movies; but perhaps that’s what makes it so effective. There is no definitive antagonist lurking around every corner for the audience to direct their scorn, or support as is sometimes the case. While they may be less inclined to jump to the same conclusions as the characters, there is much on which to speculate. The distortion of the truth until the very end of the narrative is very well-crafted, which makes the reward even greater when all is revealed. In the meantime, the unnerving momentum gradually builds with every new incident and allegation as each becomes increasingly distressing.
Though the atmosphere is already heavy with the burden of their new environment, it becomes infinitely more intense after the first child is affected. The entire picture appears darkened or dulled as if even the sunlight cannot penetrate the metaphorical dark clouds that hover over the family. Filmmakers create an everlasting and chilling effect that informs the entire narrative and continuously makes the audience’s skin crawl.
Essentially a psychological thriller, what makes the film so disturbing is the evolution of the family’s breakdown. The mother is distraught and desperate after the baby is taken, and she can’t help but blame Thomasin in her grief; this hysteria makes the transition from accident to ritual sacrifice less of a leap in her mind. The children, conversely, don’t understand the consequences of their actions and view the whole thing as a game; though their calculated denunciation is probably the worst and most damning because adults are less likely to believe them capable of such cunning. This type of shared, unwarranted accusation amongst children has been seen countless times in other real and fictitious stories, but it never becomes less disconcerting. The father is the least confident and most confused about what is happening under his roof, torn and anxious to find a solution that will restore peace amongst his family. And then there’s Thomasin, who is left to impossibly defend herself against the absence of proof.
Casting relatively unrecognizable but extremely capable actors goes a long way in allowing viewers to be drawn into this unsettling tale in which the truth is constantly in question; and in which the family may not survive its eventual exposure.
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy
, Ralph Ineson
and Kate Dickie