By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Robert Eggers directorial debut in the historical film The Witch is more than haunting. To watch a Puritan family descend into madness is a spine-chiller. As an audience, most will notice why. But how many people will pick up on the fact that this movie is set before the Salem Witch-Trials? The fact the craze happened as a result of misplaced fears and due to consumption of diseased rye is a detail deserving to mention. Without this knowledge, trying to understand this film will have some folks wondering what kind of point Eggers is wishing to make.
The film certainly highlights the hysteria that occurs after William (Ralph Ineson) and his family is told to leave by the village council. After an argument over sanctuary, the entire clan departs. One detail an eagle-eyed fan of CW’s Supernatural will notice is that the Governor is played by Julian Richings (who plays Death in the television series). Could this nod be an intentional foreshadow of what’s to come?
Perfectly isolated from the entire world, William’s family knows they will face a difficult winter and prepare. However, problems arise far quicker than the storms. The baby mysteriously disappears. William believes he’s been stolen by wolves, and Katherine (Kate Dickie) begins her slow descent to madness. What’s worse, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is entering puberty, and Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes a target by everyone. The young twins Mercy and Yonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) take on an unhealthy obsession of just being kids. They like playing with the family’s black goat, conveniently named Black Philip (along with an ominous bunny) in a blatant foreshadow of what’s to come and not understanding what being pious means. They believe their older sister is in league with the Devil.
Knowing some New England history helps makes this film enjoyable. Although the tale is a slow burn (it could have benefited from being edited down by 15 minutes), the chills offered are more than enough to make wanting to watch The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman afterwards mandatory. Both movies courts plague in different ways and have a similar colour palette — which is a treat! The terror is all psychological, and it’s not all that tough to realize the family is not going to survive the harvest or the upcoming winters by themselves. The performances by the leads, Ineson and Dickle are intense, and Taylor-Joy steals the limelight with her subdued devotion to a god obviously not listening. As the terror gets worse, the big question is if she will give in to the whispers from the woods or run back to the village screaming for help.
New England’s Edgar Allan Poe would say do give in to your innermost desires, and H.P. Lovecraft would say do explore the mystery beyond the woods. There’s a colour out of space existing in this film’s gorgeous visual palette that serves to drain the life away from this family. Perhaps if only this film did one detail accurately (not even on the best day, should Thomasin be bothered to wear lipstick — it detracts from the realism), this look into the past can easily provide lessons today in what devotion can do to the soul.
3½ Stars out of 5