Deep Focus: The Witch
In Robert Eggers’s skin-crawling historical horror film, The Witch, a family strikes out on its own in 1630 New England to farm on the edge of the wilderness. The father, William (Ralph Ineson), espouses a brand of religion too pure for the Puritan community that banishes them. He and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) hope to establish a Christian homestead for their brood: adolescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), slightly younger son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), pipsqueak twins Mercy (Elle Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and newborn son Samuel.
Before you can say Beelzebub, a witch snatches Samuel out from under Thomasin’s nose and steals him into the forest without a trace. The woods are dark, deep, and ominous, with twisted roots recalling Arthur Rackham’s gnarly illustrations for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Later, we glimpse a scarlet-robed witch dashing among them. We may be in The New World, but the sight is as decadent and upsetting as the mysterious scarlet gnome in Don’t Look Now scurrying through gorgeous, rotting Venice.
In her 2015 book The Witches: Salem, 1692, Stacy Schiff conveys how “sound ricocheted through the New England air, which had an amplifying effect on the ear and the imagination. The slap of a beaver’s tale against the water could be heard a half a mile off.” She evokes how chimerical visions emerged from the depth of the region’s night, so “when an apprentice in the Sewall household clubbed a dog outside the door, he in fact leveled a nine-year-old boy.” Massachusetts settlers, she writes, were so steeped in Scripture that even their hallucinations sprung from the Bible.
That’s the background to The Witch. Mark Korven’s score for 17th-century instruments and Adam Stein’s naturalistic sound design create a bracing audio environment—it buzzes and clatters with the unseen enigmas of the great and intimidating outdoors. With the aid of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Eggers suggests how rapidly phantasmagorias spread in daytime shadows or by the light of the moon. Eggers’s script dramatizes the existential plight of true believers who stumble into torments from the Book of Revelations. Unlike Arthur Miller in The Crucible, he doesn’t reshape their lives to fit a modern political message. He compels us to experience their prickly uncertainty and escalating horror.
Thomasin loses Samuel when she closes her eyes playing peek-a-boo. Eggers’s preferred game turns out to be peek-a-boo, too. For a very brief while, you might think that the chilling vignette of a crone taking her knife to a baby boy is a shared hallucination, not the hard, unvarnished truth. William strives to believe that a wolf made away with Samuel. But as he and the rest of the characters degenerate under the strains of farm failure and grief, they come to accept, as we do, that an insidious evil has conquered them. The supernatural universe in The Witch contains fairy-tale motifs: a fateful apple, an unflappable hare, a cantankerous big-horned goat. But you can’t figure out the ground rules or the flight rules, or even the number of witches living in the woods.
The underlying fright is that William’s rules for living have collapsed. In his super-demanding, unforgiving creed, each individual must prepare for divine judgment at any moment. Take one baby step off the straight and narrow and you court calamity. William himself has sinned by bartering his wife’s heirloom silver goblet. It’s a moral catastrophe not only because he dissembles about swapping the cup for food, but also because he knows that Katie prizes any connection to the home she loved in England. After that misdeed, it’s not too difficult for William to lie about sneaking into the woods with Caleb to hunt for food. Caleb is a good son and brother and a lonely growing boy. He can’t resist studying the tops of his sleeping sister’s breasts. Soon Caleb silently ventures out with her to run down game in the forest. He can’t stand the idea that his parents could force her to become an indentured servant to ease the family’s burdens.
Chaos overtakes them all. Before long, half the family contends that the witch is not some necromancer casting spells from a cabin in the wood, but that most problematic of all domestic creatures: the teenage girl in the house.
A first-time writer-director, Eggers tries to have his witches’ brew and slurp it down, too—and I don’t mean that as a putdown. He wants us to share the world view of people who believe in hags flying through the air and Satan walking the earth. He also wants us to perceive that their impossibly demanding and repressive morality breeds hysteria. This movie stages a death race in your head between alarm at supernatural forces provoking or committing atrocities and dread that Thomasin will be driven insane. When the poor girl finally gets some emotional release, it’s in the worst possible way.
Eggers has cited Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which also depicts the dissolution of an isolated family, as a key influence on his movie. But far more germane to The Witch is Carl Dreyer’s towering Day of Wrath. Set just seven years earlier, in 1623, Dreyer’s film is a masterpiece of empathy and balance as well as an agonizing terror. The heroine is the second wife of an aging pastor. Her mother-in-law is so vile and her spouse so ascetic that you applaud when she finds love in the arms of his grown son. After she learns that her mother confessed to being a witch with the power of “invocation” (the ability to summon the living and the dead), she becomes convinced that she’s a witch, too—and that she can use invocation to cement her affair and seal her happiness. Whether she truly is a spell-caster or simply a loving, sensual woman (the film enables you to argue either way), you identify with her passion and her suffering. In either case, there’s no denying the moral tyranny and the fear of erotic love in Day of Wrath’s stern, patriarchal society.
Since The Witch unfolds on the New England frontier, with a breakaway religious family, the ambience is naturally harsher than that of Dreyer’s small Danish town with its well-behaved choirboys and well-tended grounds. The filmmaker’s sensibility is coarser, too. He provides a full complement of killings and patches of rough or sardonic comedy, like William’s matchlock rifle backfiring when he tries to shoot that hare, or the rambunctious twins goading the he-goat they call Black Phillip, who is simultaneously comical and menacing. (Black Phillip proved so popular on the festival circuit that he has his own twitter feed, where the he-goat issues wisecracks like “the word scapegoat is a racial slur. If you say it I guarentee [sic] you go to hell.”)
Eggers displays his finest talent and potential when he executes a Dreyeresque tightrope walk with Thomasin. Taylor-Joy takes your breath away from the beginning, when Thomasin makes a solitary, sweeping confession. She rattles off common teen misbehaviors such as idleness and disobedience, and then, during a mini-catharsis, admits to breaking each commandment in her thoughts. In that scene, and others, Taylor-Joy is an unselfconscious powerhouse. When Thomasin grows infuriated at her agitating little sister Mercy, who mistrusts her anyway, Taylor-Joy’s eyes flash with rage as she pretends to be the wicked witch of the forest. You can see why Mercy might think she’s otherworldly. Is Thomasin fated to become the witch that her accusers expect her to be?
Taylor-Joy and Eggers wring such intensity from that question that you feel cheated when the movie collapses into anarchy and clumsy, obfuscating editing at a crucial turning point. But the climactic Walpurgisnacht is a beauty—and the road to it is strewn with many bleak glories. They include an acting showcase for young Scrimshaw, whose biggest scene bridges the gap between the demonic and the transcendent.
A production designer for film, stage, and television, Eggers based this script on diaries, court papers, the Geneva Bible, “witch pamphlets” tantamount to tabloids, and regional period lore. His literary and visual authenticity gives the film an earthy yet alien quality. The characters’ intricate, antique diction meshes with Eggers’s unsparing depiction of their hardscrabble life in a cramped, primitive cabin. There is genuine pathos to the sight and sound of Caleb hearing his mother’s mournful prayers through the makeshift curtain that surrounds her pallet.
Cinematographer Blaschke has worked out modest, expressive camera moves in the squarer than usual 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The movie’s elegantly stilted visuals mesh with its formal language. The result is not a “you are there” experience, but something creepier and more voyeuristic, as if we’re eavesdropping on a long-ago era.
Eggers subtitles his film “A New England Folk Tale,” and that’s how it works most of the way. The Witch is a two-threaded yarn, with Pilgrim-era paranormal behavior encroaching on William’s home as paranoia ravages it from within. Even when the yarn breaks apart, it does so with a terrifying twang.