Toil And Trouble
The Witch is a haunting portrait of the past, twisted fiendishly between fable and frightening reality. Painstakingly replicated and rooted in the 17th century, mere decades before the trials at Salem, Robert Eggers’ film is a tale of family and the various forms of superstition that bind and break it. True to intention it embodies the hand-crafted nature of folk-lore, beginning its journey feeling foreign and then concluding as an all too familiar beast. It’s a triumph in almost every detail and you’ll linger in its grasp, long after the end.
The film begins with a Puritan family, ostracized from their plantation and forced to strike out into the wilderness on their own. Before long their newly erected farmstead is beset by failing crops and the terrifying and equally mysterious loss of the youngest child. From here on the days are weighed down by a twisting sense of paranoia. Childish games turn to damning evidence and even the livestock feel the chill of something colder than the Fall air.
Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blashke have created a historical bubble so convincingly realized and properly inhabited that even the simple act of splitting wood is entrancing. Each shot gives way to the ruggedness of a wild unwilling to relinquish control. Characters buzz about the farm with ritual, every action essential to warding off the incoming winter. And you feel it, the sweat and struggle. Whether it’s worn its way into the creases of their hands, or the seams of their clothing, nothing comes easy here. Nothing is guaranteed, God given or otherwise.
At the forefront of the family is William (Ralph Ineson), the patriarch and the guiding light that lead them all to the New World. Despite their current failures, William is steadfast in his faith, attributing the misfortune to a divine test of will- one he plans to endure through continued devotion and perseverance. His wife, Catherine (Kate Dickie), is less convinced of their mission and teeters on the edge of sanity once things begin to go horribly awry. Caught between the two are the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), and son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). They’re our focal point, and ultimately the victims of the increasingly dire situation.
Each of the performances is utterly convincing as part of a devout family unit and as historical scenery. Much of the dialogue is spoken with confidence and often pulled directly from documents written in the early 1600s. Even the clothing is hand-sewn and the house built faithfully to the period standards. This is a world out of time, existing on the border of both the woods and the country’s storied past. And naturally, lingering so close to the edge attracts a foul sort of darkness- the kind even a candle-flame fears. The horror elements at play feel as truthful and grounded as the history itself, even when it veers toward the supernatural. Because of the goodwill built up by the production design, the scares are never cheap. All are earned through mistake and misdeed. It’s terrifying in its very presence, on and off screen, something modern horror films have lost in translation.
As a whole The Witch is a lovingly crafted ode to folk-tales and the whispers hidden by the creaking of the trees. It’s an incredibly assured directorial debut, and sure to be a film revisited time and time again, like the best spooky stories.