Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph
Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
Director: Robert Eggers
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.661
Features: See Review
Length: 92 Minutes
Release Date: May 17, 2016
“Corruption...thou art my father!”
The Witch is totally mesmerizing when you first see it. Then, as the hours pass and your mind wanders back to it, you really begin to peel away a layer at a time at what a complete, surprising, and thorough an experience it truly was.
From first time writer-director Robert Eggers, it's the kind of movie that silently surprises you at turn after turn, starting with the premise. If I tell you it's an early New England period piece centered around Puritans and fear of witchcraft, you probably think you already have the whole story mapped out, right? You'd be wrong. Wait, you say...this isn't another “Salem” story, or a rehash of The Crucible? Not at all.
As the film opens, we see a family being driven away from their church. We don't know, nor do we ever know, the circumstances. Immediately Eggers starts to toy with our expectations. Is the family bad? Is the church bad? We begin looking for clues, as we only see the end of the “trial”, when the father William, (Ineson) quietly but boldly proclaims his faith and rebukes the church elders.
We follow the family, including William, his wife (Dickie), and five children, the infant Samuel, two young twins Mercy and Jonas, an older boy Caleb (Scrimshaw), and their teen daughter Thomasin (Joy). Faith is strong, as they set out away from their community toward the wilderness to begin life completely on their own.
There is enough drama and sadness in this family to make the film forget the horror that's lurking. I don't want to give away too many plot points, but soon after their arrival, a family member goes missing. A second soon follows and returns, but in a very changed way. There is fear of witchcraft beginning to tear this family apart.
And...they're not wrong. In most movies about this subject and this time period, it would all be about the runaway paranoia of witches and demons, and the destructiveness of that ill-will toward fellow man. But here, it's just as destructive...but not unfounded. There is something evil amongst them, and whether it's just the father's failure to grow crops or hunt, or the inability of faithful souls to sometimes look each other in the eye and speak the truth, or whether things that defy all sense of normalcy occur.
This is a thoroughly satisfying movie no matter how you measure it. The cast is completely amazing and believable, especially the youngsters, who have to carry tremendous weight. Young Anya Taylor Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw are astonishing in their emotionally weight roles.
The look of the film is also completely satisfying; mostly outdoors, but always with a cool greyness that reflects the family's mood and situation. But ultimately, it's the surehanded script and direction from Robert Eggars that brings it all together. To take a tired old subject like New England Puritanism and witchcraft and deliver something so fresh and new is remarkable, and his sense of pacing throughout is beautiful. Nothing is rushed through; the film doesn't look like the usual horror film put together in the editing room. Shot after shot is constructed and crafted with love and purpose.
I haven't even touched on the question most of you are probably wondering, since it IS a horror film...is it scary? Definitely. I love horror films, but most frankly don't scare me anymore. It takes something real, seriously treated, and evolving from a place of real emotion to bring me into fright. The Witch does that. It earns your investment, and rewards you with true horror, not just the cookie-cutter variety.
I for one can't wait to see what Eggers delivers next. He's shown me enough in one movie to convince me he can do drama, period, or even more horror. But whatever genre he chooses, I have faith based on one picture to believe he'll find news ways of looking at even the oldest of subjects.
With mostly natural light at hand, The Witch looks exactly like you would expect and need; as mentioned, gray, cold...very little in the way of warm or dazzling colors. But the effect is as intended, and served the picture well.
Horror is all about sound, and this uncompressed audio soundtrack delivers the real dynamic range, mostly from so many stretches of quiet. When things get loud, they do so quickly, and help accentuate the mood of the terror. Dialogue is well-rendered throughout, although I found it handy to have the subtitles on just because of the accents.
The extras include a commentary with Robert Eggers, a short featurette, a cast Q&A and a design gallery.
Every so often, a horror film gets it right. The Witch does that and more, with a great cast, great concept, and great horrific rewards for your emotional investment. Highly recommended.