The Witch

March 23, 2016
Anya Taylor-Joy in 'The Witch' (2015)
Anya Taylor-Joy in 'The Witch' (2015)

Robert Eggers’s directorial debut, The Witch, is a horror movie that will appeal more strongly to arthouse types than to viewers weaned on a diet of ‘shock and gore’. It’s undeniably creepy but most of the director’s energy has gone into the creation of atmosphere and period detail. The entire film seems to have been shot in twilight, with dialogue lifted from 17th century texts.

The story is set in 1630 among the primitive Puritan community of New England. The craggy William (Ralph Ineson), has been banished from the settlement because of his deviant interpretation of the scriptures. Rather than recant he stubbornly decides to go with his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and five children, to carve out a life in the wilderness.

Ralph makes a brave start, building a cottage and planting crops, but it’s a desperately poor existence that relies too heavily on the beneficence of an indifferent Creator.

The first tangible disaster occurs when teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes her baby brother Sam to the edge of the woods. As she plays peek-a-boo with him he suddenly disappears. The family is distraught, unable to find the boy or solve the mystery, but Eggers allows us a shadowy vision of a naked female form raising a knife over the baby. It could be a nightmare, but we feel pretty sure this glimpse of witchcraft is real.

An evil influence gradually encircles the family, with each incident generating a new rush of hysteria and paranoia. Next to be effected is Thomasin’s younger brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who is struggling to reconcile the pangs of puberty with his stern religious upbringing. The twins, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), are mischievous, spoiled imps that already seem to be possessed by devilish urges. Their favourite playmate is the goat, Black Philip, a familiar symbol of Satan.

Although much of the horror in this film is psychological, Eggers does not consign the witch or witches to the realm of fantasy. For most of the time Satan’s minions are represented by a large, mean-looking rabbit that sits glaring at the settlers, but there are supernatural beings in those gloomy woods who seem to have based their personal style on Goya etchings.

The focus of the story is Thomasin, whose name suggests St. Thomas’s sin of doubting that Jesus had risen from the dead. There are many indications that Thomasin’s faith is not as fervent as that of her parents. She jokes about being a witch, but it is not long before she must live with this accusation. Her mother holds her responsible for the baby’s disappearance, and is willing to blame all subsequent misfortunes on the girl. Her father’s weak character allows the injustice to fester.

Thomasin’s chief sin, one suspects, is being a luminous beauty in a milieu of dirt, gloom and poverty. It’s the start of a promising career for Taylor-Joy.

Eggers works hard to get inside the viewer’s head with a fastidious recreation of a Puritan homestead, and of the mentality of an age when God and the Devil were powerful presences in everyday life. One could argue that he tries a little too hard, with all the dialogue muttered in an antiquated patois that would need subtitles to be fully understood. What is lost from the script is made up by the visuals, and by a subtle, insistent musical score by Mark Korven that keeps our unease at a steady pitch. The result is a boutique chiller that is more likely to freeze the blood than to get one’s pulse racing.

The Witch
Written & directed by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie. Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
USA/UK/Canada/Brazil, rated MA 15+, 92 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26th March, 2016.

Tags:
,