It’s being promoted as a horror movie, but this spare and chilling folktale about a pioneer family in 17th Century New England is an existential thriller about family and faith
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Running time: 90 minutes
By Jay Stone
The bleakly riveting The Witch — subtitled “A New-England Folktale” — takes place among a family of devoted, obedient and doomed settlers somewhere in the American northeast, circa 1630. It’s been promoted as a horror movie, but it unfolds with a different kind of fright: a terror of the soul, the agonies of people who are frightened that they will be abandoned by God, or that they have affronted Him. They live among devils and witches, not as supernatural monsters but a part of the fabric of the nature that both feeds and constricts them. The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
It’s set about 50 years before the hysteria of the Salem witch trials, familiar from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible as a parable of superstition and of McCarthyism. The Witch functions as almost a parable of that parable, a story of the mysteries of fundamental faith and family in which we’re never certain of what is real and what is imagined.
It begins at a church meeting where William (Ralph Inneson, lean and forbidding) is about to be banished by his community for the sin of “prideful conceit.” In a place of stern worship, William is apparently too religious.
He leaves with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, in a beautifully plain-spoken performance) and their five children, and they stop at what seems to be a foreordained plot of land beside a forest. There he will hew a farm out of the wilderness, grow corn — much of it will turn black and bad during this pessimistic season — raise goats and devote most of his energy to either chopping wood or asking the Lord for forgiveness. It’s a spare, dun-coloured world, ingeniously created by writer-director Robert Eggers (normally a production and costume designer) as a place of rugged sorrows.
These begin when their teenage daughter Thomasin (the scene-stealing Anya Taylor-Joy), who is just blooming into womanhood, is asked to care for her infant brother. She lays him in the grass to play peek-a-boo — an infant favourite — until the instant when she covers her eyes, and opens them to see that he has somehow vanished.
Did a witch take him? A wolf? The very forest that surrounds them? It’s the beginning of a mystery that has no sudden scares or violent portents, but rather relies on a more organic kind of horror. A naked woman, seen from behind and in the dark, is ripping something out of the wall, or a tree. Katherine dreams her baby son has returned and she is breast-feeding him, but he turns into a crow, and she awakens with blood on her nightshirt. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw, a powerful presence), Thomasin’s younger brother, is distracted by glimpses of her developing body; can his imaginings conjure up visions of a voluptuous witch in the woods?
Most distracting are the wild twins, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), who chase around the farm bothering the animals, particularly Black Phillip, a fearsome goat with deadly curved horns: exactly the kind of animal the devil himself might inhabit in the roil of worship, need, and imaginings that prey on this isolated family.
It’s not a film for the usual horror movie crowd, especially when you add the characters’ heavy North England accents that thicken much of the dialogue in the same way — and perhaps to the same purpose — as the abundant trees thicken the forbidding forest. The talk itself, when you decipher it, is old and fluted, but still utilitarian. “God give you good morrow,” they might say, by way of a morning greeting. “Thou shall be home by candle-time tomorrow,” William promises Katherine on the eve of a journey.
The Witch is a film that asks audiences to slide into the past and imagine the everyday haunting of missing children, failed crops and dark evils. It’s a tricky balance that Eggers achieves with long, slow blackouts and careful use of silence, at least until a final five minutes that may be too explicit for what has gone before. Even then, though, you wonder: is this exactly what it must have been like?
THE EX-PRESS, February 25, 2016
– 30 –