There is a witch in the woods. Before considering anything else about Robert Eggers’ intensely perverse new horror movie, The Witch, this must be understood. Because whatever other psychological and cultural bedevilments that will occur here—for which there are legion—the effect only works if it is immediately accepted that this is a film where Evil with a “capital E” resides.
That is also just about the highest compliment possible for The Witch, proving it lives up to its subtitle of “A New England Folktale.” Even with its 90-minute runtime, The Witch is deliberately labored in its pacing, often indulging the bottomless patience of its protagonists and their archaic cadence—and the result is uncomfortably engrossing. It’s a slow immersion into a time gone by, methodically abandoning us to the superstitions of the earliest colonials in the 1600s, who, despite all their puritanical piety, were highly deviant.
And by summoning up those forgotten demons, Eggers has conjured something truly special: a movie seeped in quiet, tangible malevolence.
Set sometime in the early or mid 17th century, The Witch hones in on a kind of religious fervor that might have been too extreme even for the Pilgrims. At first glance, the patriarchal William (Ralph Ineson) would be a forward thinker since he believes neither the Church of England nor his community’s more strictly reformed version of the king’s gospel is the solitary path to salvation. However, he’s also a proud and stubborn man, holding onto his religious superiority so fiercely that it gets himself and his family evicted from an unnamed New England colony—exiled to live in the wilderness alone.
Building the farm on the edge of a river and wood, William and long-suffering wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) live with their large family that includes pre-adolescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and their eldest daughter, the teenaged Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). The latter of whom is their oldest child, but as her femininity sets in and womanhood nears, she is also the most alien and distrusted, especially after their newborn babe Samuel vanishes on her watch.
William and Katherine mourn that a wolf dragged off their youngest darling… but there are worse things out there than wolves, and their feverish devotion leads them to secretly know it too. Thus both parents soon look to Thomasin for an explanation as to why her siblings are accusing her of witchcraft.
There has been much made in the press as of late that The Witch has been endorsed by a “satanic temple.” While it is not surprising that the antithesis of the film’s protagonists would take a shine to these characters’ painstaking cinematic desecration—particularly when one of the more humorous subplots in the film is that the children start speculating their goat Black Phillip is in fact evil—the film is not so black or white in its morality. Instead, it is a unique horror film where the menace is both internal and external.
As aforementioned, the film almost immediately reveals the silhouette and out-of-focus machinations of a devil-worshipping hag in the forest. But in spite of her presence, it is the consequence of her cruelty that makes the story so demented. Eggers claims that in research for the screenplay, he studied many accounts of supposed witchcraft and deviltry from 17th century texts, and there is an air of authenticity to how the family both speaks and judges one another’s actions with all the rapidity of an overworked mule.
However, even with the hallmarks of a ghost story tailor-made for the most zealous of Puritans, there is a modern sense of dread that is building in every frame of The Witch. Life may have been innocuous and simple for America’s first settlers, but the film also hints at an unspoken repression that is as corrosive to the soul as most paranormal afflictions. With the family implicitly terrified of the dawning self-awareness and potential sexuality of their oldest daughter—as well as the earliest intimations that their sweet son Caleb is having impure thoughts—William and Katherine are as equally wary of Thomasin as they are of the possibility of something worse in the woods.
The result is a film that embraces the supernatural perversions of New England phobias while uncomfortably depicting their more likely real world consequences since Thomasin is entirely oppressed throughout the film by suspicion for more than just her potential predilection for the dark arts. The film is both embracing and condemning the Puritan lifestyle, which might be more hideous than whatever true form the witch can take.
In these moments, Anya Taylor-Joy is particularly good at conveying the exasperation and devastation of a daughter who feels her family’s disdain because of the virtues of her age and gender. All of the older actors do very well (and young Scrimshaw also holds his own as Caleb), but Taylor-Joy travels the longest path in this strange tale, carrying the audience into a remarkably believable kind of darkness. Ralph Ineson is also superb as a pious man with too much unconfessed narcissism to admit his piling hypocrisies.
And rest assured that within much of this domestic drama, there are grueling moments of unspoken horror, particularly when the film creeps toward its third act. The film’s pace will undoubtedly be an issue for some viewers since the terror comes neither from jump scares nor any real amount of bloodletting. Rather, the experience feeds off the insidious and omnipresent sensation that there is something wrong with this farm and that doom is always just a few paces off-screen. Ultimately, what makes The Witch so chilling is that while in its thrall, the movie carefully strips you of modern sensibilities, pulling you into a world without irony or awareness.
And as the third act surrenders to that blackest magic, hurdling audiences into a kind of Puritan fever dream, the palpable dread that you’re partaking in something truly wicked will grab hold of you as sure as hellfire.