On the way home from The Witch or The VVITCH (depending on what poster you read) I called my friend Maria @moviemazz Lewis who immediately asked “how was the movie?” I replied, “I heard a Satanist walking out of the film say, ‘this is my Star Wars.'”
“Really?!” she exclaimed excitedly.
“No, of course not.”
“Oh man,” she sighed, “I wanted to ask how you could tell it was a Satanist, other than the obvious.”
That little exchange brought up two necessary discussion items with The Witch, firstly that the film in its brief lifespan, has captured a feverish cult-like status, with one critic in the U.S. going to a Satan worshipper event screening of the film. Secondly, it’s that word, ‘witch.’ After what seems to be 50 years of cultural revisionism to undo the demonisation of women and the stereotype of an old hag as witch, filmmaker Robert Eggers takes you back to the conditions that conjure the fear, helplessness and hysteria that created the monster.
1630. A pious, outspoken man William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are cast out of their New England plantation and head into the frontier wilderness to stakeout a patch of earth to make their own. When the baby of the family disappears under the supervision of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) the family suspects witchcraft and begins to tear itself apart.
They’re calling The Witch one of the scariest films of the last decade. Despite the boldness (and pull quote/click bait B.S) of that statement, it’s undeniable that writer/director Robert Eggers has crafted something truly unique and frightening.
From the moment that Eggers follows the family, he hones in on Thomasin’s perspective. In the sequence as they exit the secure confines of their compound, their rickety wagon struggles through the dirt toward the woods. Through the closing gates, several native Americans can be seen attempting to barter with the compound; two glance out and see the family jettisoned into the woods and give a perplexed look that screams that they do not belong out there. It’s difficult to imagine the life of religious conservatives, striking out on a perilous journey to England for this ‘New World’ and then being too outspoken and fanatical in their beliefs for their community (those batshit crazy people who took a wooden boat ride across the Atlantic).
Eggers brilliance (apart from his talent crafting ‘ye olde english’ dialogue) is being able to pace out the supernatural elements of the story with the true hysterics of a family whose faith is being tested with wave after wave of disturbing scenarios. Almost as much of the torment that befalls the family comes at the hand of distrust, manipulation and paranoia from within. The framing and composition reinforces their insignificance and the perilousness of everything extending beyond their clearing the warm glow of candlelight. The sound design is impeccable too, creating moods and dread to set the tone for what would eventually unfold. But in the moments you’re expecting cues to make you shriek, the score falls away leaving you to dwell naked in the disturbance. In the moments I expected the audience around me to be shrieking, they sat silent.
Eggers presents you with screeching strings on the score in these quiet reflective moments to make you focus in on the scary reality; but with each escalating intervention from the witch, that seductive quiet you’re drawn into like someone’s thrusting your head towards it.
Ralph Ineson (Amycus Carrow from the Harry Potter franchise), who plays patriarch of the family William, has one of the most unbelievably stirring gravelly voices that this reviewer has ever heard. I’m sure he gargles with the same mouth wash as James Earl Jones, Barry White and Tom Waits. Despite his imposing figure he’s treading carefully with his interactions with his wife to keep her positive. Harvey Scrimshaw is quite excellent as Caleb. His curious manner and sense of awareness in his volatile family means that he’s there as a balm to fraught situations. Watching his pivotal and hypnotic scenes encountering the witch are huge highlights.
Kate Dickie stars as matriarch Katherine, formerly ‘breast feed ’em ’til they’re 20′ Lysa Arryn in Game of Thrones; sex crazed Chrissie from Filth (starring James MacAvoy); and starred as a wounded mother in the incredible For Those in Peril. She plays Katherine with fierce rage as her faith is tested, as if her very spawn are after her. Twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are little whirlwinds of chaos and torment, just as you’d expect for four year old twins. As their folk songs, and herding the family’s goat Black Phillip begins to evolve into them whispering the goat, you start thinking that the goat may be more than what he seems.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin’s soulful eyes enrapture you through the screen. Breaking the fourth wall to pray into the audience, she fears God and fears that her sinful thoughts will effect her family’s fortune. When events start unfolding she is both sure that she’s doing the right thing and reeling with disbelief.
Eggers ‘New England Folktale’ exhumes the concept of the witch back from the primordial place we hid her; and it’s as chilling as it is clever.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Robert Eggers
Anya Taylor-Joy – Thomasin
Ralph Ineson – William
Kate Dickie – Katherine
Harvey Scrimshaw – Caleb
Ellie Grainger – Mercy
Lucas Dawson – Jonas