The Witch (2016) review
After months of widespread promotion and anticipation, Writer-director Robert Eggers’ divisive debut The Witch impresses with strong visuals and immersive pacing, for better or worse. Regarded among droves of horror enthusiasts as one of the most promising offerings to the genre since fan favorites It Follows and The Babadook, The Witch premiered with high expectations set in place. Thankfully, breathtaking cinematography and a skilled cast armed with well-researched, though not perfect, dialogue help this slow burn of a period piece succeed in almost every aspect.
Following a community rift stemming from differing opinions on faith practices, devoutly religious William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) uproot their 17th century New England family from plantation life to settle on an isolated plot of land along the edge of the woods. The family builds a house and establishes a farm, which seems to work fairly well until William and Katherine’s infant son—the youngest of their five children—is abducted while under the care of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). To make matters worse, their crops fail to yield a healthy harvest. As the family attempts to piece together the mystery behind their hardships, accusations of witchcraft begin to surface. Tensions grow after some dark turns around the homestead, and the fractured family’s fear and distrust for one another reaches critical mass.
Though the film plays off some of America’s earliest folklore, a unique and subtle take on a familiar story unravels on screen. The action starts strong in the beginning but dies down and becomes punctuated by serving as posts along stretches of story through dialogue. While countless other recent horror films of late have relied heavily on cheap scares in the form of abrupt edits coupled with jarring sound effects, The Witch is all about atmosphere and gradually building suspense.
The Witch will undoubtedly leave some viewers bored, as the pacing might be hard for some to sit through and the main crescendo might not be enough of a spike compared to more common stories of the genre. You won’t find a lot of heart-pounding action or gruesome scenes daring you to watch, you’ll find a sinister mystery with clues lying in character progression and visual symbolism. And for a lot of horror fans and movie fans alike, that may sound dull. Style is the film’s most notable and original feature, which may lead to some appreciating, but not liking the movie.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s striking shots of the farm and surrounding woods are probably the film’s foremost highlight, followed closely by powerhouse performances by the entire cast—creepy twins and cloven members not excluded—and Mark Korven’s unsettling score filled with choral chants and dreary strings, mirroring the ever-gray setting. Ineson’s booming voice and brawny delivery serve well the authentic-sounding dialogue, but Taylor-Joy’s performance is the true standout. The film’s religious aspects only add to the pain and confusion of the characters and help accentuate the devastating reality of the circumstances they endure.
All the aforementioned pieces come together to form an engaging and decidedly bleak atmosphere. The story itself is nothing new, but it’s beautifully self-contained and doesn’t bother ruining the mystique by over-explaining mythology, leaving audiences with enough to keep guessing after the third act. Don’t expect to get a lot of straight answers about the underlying forces at work, but fret not, The Witch shows why fears branching from the unknown are best kept in the dark.
The Witch is the first exceptional horror film of the year, and will likely be considered among the best at year’s end. Overall, the film is deeply unnerving, and no doubt less effective when watched with a group. The story is voyeuristic and should be enjoyed in an intimate setting for full effect. The dread underlying the film is released a little at a time as it lures you into its world. If you’re looking for a scary movie with everything at the surface and all loose ends neatly tied up for you, you’ll want to look elsewhere. This is period-piece horror blurring its lines with folk tales and art house. Certainly no crowd-pleaser, but The Witch is a welcomed treat for many.