PLOT: A puritanical family in 17th century New England encounter a series of frightening events when they start up a new farm next to a forbidding forest.
REVIEW:In the last handful of years, the horror community has been lucky enough to find at least one breakout title to wrap their arms around and use as indisputable proof that the genre still has plenty of blood in it. Like THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS before it, THE WITCH is surely going to be the chiller du jour when the world takes a gander at it, and with good reason, because it's a creepy, nerve-jangling piece, meticulously made and sure to follow you home well after you've left the theater. There are moments in THE WITCH that genuinely made me squirm in my seat, so uncomfortable was I with the palpable dread and fear Robert Eggers' directorial debut oozed off the screen. It's scary, that's for sure, but it's also just plain good; it draws you into its world as skillfully as any film I've seen in the past year or two.
The less you know about the simple yet captivating plot, the better. I successfully managed to walk into my screening knowing very little about what actually transpires in the film, and that was for the best. It takes place in 17th century New England; a family of devout Christians are banished from their village, presumably thanks to a religious dispute with the town's elders. William (Ralph Ineson) plans to start anew and build a working farm on the edge of a wooded area, miles from anything resembling civilization. The rest of the family is made up of god-fearing mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), young teen Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), adolescent twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson, respectively) and baby Samuel. One day, something takes Samuel away, mere inches from where Tomasin leans over him; at first the culprit is believed to have been an exceptionally crafty animal, but soon enough it becomes evident a more menacing presence is to blame, and it's only beginning its ritualistic torment.
What follows is a story filled with paranoia, melancholy and fear, as the family breaks down due to forces inside and out. Shades of the Salem Witch Trails are overt but not overwhelming; it doesn't seem to me that Eggers is attempting a morality tale, although the price of unquestioning faith is surely paid. Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke paint grey, foreboding pictures and allow us to sink into them; THE WITCH creates a despairing mood right up front and sticks with it, drawing scenes out to increasingly unnerving effect. Adding to the nightmarish aura is Mark Korven's sinister and disorienting score, which hammers home some of the film's more overtly horrific moments.
Eggers captures the period incredibly well; not a thing looks out of place, even if the set design is more or less uncomplicated. What really stands out is the unique dialect of the puritan family; Eggers took most of the antiquated dialogue from books written in the 1600s, the better to fully immerse us in the time. And while some might find difficulty understanding everything that's said (I'll admit a great many lines went right over my head), the very sound of it is so interesting that it doesn't feel necessary to identify each and every word. It's just plain compelling to listen to words that are recognizably of English origin yet somehow sound alien. I'd be tempted to watch the film with subtitles next time, but I think that would actually defeat the allure of the conversations.
The cast certainly helps us gather the meaning and import of the dialogue; this small ensemble is never anything less than convincing. As the parents, Ineson and Dickie are both formidable and heartbreaking; their descent into complete helplessness is distressing to watch. Taylor-Joy is excellent as the tragic heroine, who is the most pragmatic individual of the bunch, hence the most in danger of incurring the wrath of her family. And Scrimshaw is remarkable as Caleb; he takes center stage in a vivid sequence toward the end of the film that is truly startling to behold. Finally, you'll want to keep an eye on Black Philip, the family goat. Sound like a joke? See the movie, you won't soon forget him.