"This wilderness will not consume us."
Horror movies are in a rather dire state right now, so I hope I could be forgiven for being slightly pessimistic going into ‘The Witch’. Even with the fact that it was co-written by Damien Chazelle (writer and director of ‘Whiplash’) or the fact that it won the Directing Award in the dramatic category at Sundance 2016, or the fact that it’s the debut of Robert Eggers who has sited Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Miller and Ingmar Bergman as influences on the film. Okay I admit I intrigued at that point.
A family of settlers in 17th Century New England are excommunicated from their puritan community and left to fend for themselves in an isolated region of the countryside. But when their youngest son goes missing, they begin to fear a supernatural presence within the woods beside their farm, a presence that may either be real or imagined.
It is difficult to pin down what ‘The Witch’ actually is. At times it resembles a period drama just as much as it does a horror film. In a twisted sense it’s almost a coming of age tale as the central character Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy) faces the challenges of growing up in an isolated and harsh environment as her family is excommunicated and they struggle to survive on their own. We observe the life of a young woman growing up in a male dominated society, an adolescent on the verge of adulthood who is practically shunned by her already shunned family simply for being confused over what she is and who she will be.
As I said, it’s tough to restrain ‘The Witch’ to one particular genre. All I know for certain, is that it is a masterclass in atmospheric filmmaking. There is an unnatural eeriness to each scene with a gradual rise in tension that releases itself slowly and excruciatingly. Eggers takes full advantage of his environment to carve out this feeling of isolation and claustrophobia and then there’s the fact that the cinematography is able to reflect the depression felt by the central characters. It’s also so brilliantly intertwined with the various subplots, for a majority of the film the supernatural elements exist merely in the background. The viewer is placed in the position of the family, something is troubling us, and we know something is out there, but for now we occupy ourselves with more immediate problems and dramas.
These more immediate problems include failing crops, risk of starvation, shortage of money, their missing son, the isolation from their community, the perceived spiritual ramifications of their sin of ‘prideful conceit’ for which they are banished. If anything these tasks are just ways to occupy their minds from what is really troubling them, the force that lurks in the forest. But the whole aspect is handled with such perfect ambiguity, it becomes more about what the family believe the presence us rather than what it actually is. The hordes of religious terrors that they convince themselves are punishing them, their obsession with sin and the self-loathing they seem to inflict upon themselves all play into how this spectral presence is viewed.
It soon becomes a story not of ghosts and ghouls, but of a family as it systematically tears itself apart. This film is about projected fears, paranoia and suspicion as well as the impact that has on a group of people living together. The cast are all excellent at expressing these fears, they each act out their own beliefs and actions with the utmost conviction that immersed me within the era, as did the whole aesthetic of the movie. Concerning the production of the film, Eggers has said that the “devil is within the detail” and that is reflected by his attitude to authenticity.
Once again it comes down to that age old saying of you only get out of great films what you put into them. If you go into ‘The Witch’ expecting a by the numbers horror film, filled with awful jump scares or meaningless gore then you may be disappointed (which explains why it only has a rating of a C- on Cinemascore, even though any other terrible horror movie probably scores an A- or something). But if you want a film that skilfully and expertly unnerves you through atmosphere and character then you will struggle to find any recent film better than ‘The Witch’. It also features the most terrifying goat in cinema history.
‘The Witch’ is one of the best horror movies in recent years, marking Robert Eggers as a director to watch out for.