We are only two months into 2016, and while we have another ten to go, I am ready to say that we’ve already been presented with what will likely be the best horror film of the year. After making headlines around this same time last year when it premiered at Sundance, Robert Eggers’ The Witch has finally been made available for mass consumption, and it’s as good as you hoped it was.
Set in 1630 New England, the movie follows religious family man William (Ralph Ineson) and his family of six, who leave the populated New England area to live elsewhere due to a religious dispute within the township. William and his family stake their land miles away from the rest of civilization, dropping to their knees and praising their God upon arrival.
Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is our main character. She is a teenager, the eldest of the kids in the family. Months have passed since their move and things are looking up for the family, but that’s about to come to an end. One day, as Thomasin is looking after her recently born baby brother, Samuel, she plays peek-a-boo with the baby. She closes her eyes one too many times, and the child disappears in the blink of an eye.
As the film continues, the family never escapes misfortune. Their crops begin to die, leaving William and his young son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) to attempt to catch prey in the nearby woods for sustenance, mostly to no avail. William’s wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) no longer sleeps, instead lying awake all night worrying about the disappearance of Samuel. And at all times, there’s a sense of loss of faith, along with an increasingly realistic fear that perhaps witches are responsible for everything happening.
The Witch lays its cards out on the table fairly early on, and although I would have rather the film stayed more mysterious, it is still an effective and unforgettable experience, in large part due to the fantastic performances from all involved.
Newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin so well that you’ll find it hard to believe this is her first performance in a film, and I feel as though she really steals the show here. Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb is played rather impressively by another newcomer, Harvey Scrimshaw, who takes the reigns of the character. Game of Thrones alums Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie also give effective performances as the parental figures of the family.
Similar to the inexperienced and yet incredibly talented actors is the film’s writer/director, Robert Eggers, whose first full-length film is The Witch. Eggers sets up an intense — and intensely detailed — story about hysteria surrounding the possibility of witchcraft.
The Witch will likely be a hard film for many people. It’s a film that is painstakingly realistic in its time period in all the best ways, even going so far as to have time-specific dialect. It can be a little hard to grasp at times, but if you give the film your full attention, you should have no problem understanding most, if not all, of the dialogue.
I personally found The Witch to be entirely engrossing; I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) pull my attention from the screen throughout the 92-minute runtime. I was invested in these characters from the get go, and I’m glad I stuck it out, even if my one major criticism of the film comes in the ending. It’s not a bad ending in any sense — it is actually quite fitting for the film — I just find it a bit heavy handed and cliché. Even still, it doesn’t do much to ruin what is a fantastic horror film experience otherwise.
Fear is subjective, yes, but I want to be clear and say that The Witch isn’t much of a “scary movie,” as in I can’t think of many scenes that would actually scare someone. Though it may not scare you, per se, it may well likely be an experience that gets under your skin so intensely that you’ll find it all extremely disturbing, as it definitely was for me.
Eggers creates many striking images in the film that will likely cause you unease. Now I have the opportunity to look back at some stills from the film and stare in awe at the astonishing craftsmanship and beautiful cinematography, but as I watched the film for the first time, I was too busy feeling sick to my stomach to appreciate a lot of the hidden beauty in the film making.
I really cannot sing enough praise for The Witch. There’s plenty to love here: incredible performances, striking visual aesthetics, fittingly eerie sound design, and a truly captivating story. The Witch is profoundly unique, remarkably crafted, and one of the best horror films of the decade.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor