Written and Directed by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Film Review by Hannah Sayer
“What went we out into this wilderness to find?”
This question from Ralph Ineson’s William resonates throughout the narrative of The Witch (AKA The Vvitch: A New-England Folk Tale). The darkness of the wilderness surrounding William and his family encompasses many forms, and it seems that out of nowhere a new filmmaking talent has emerged. After receiving its world premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where Robert Eggers won a Directing award, the release of The Witch over a year later has proven that the initial rapturous praise the film received was well deserved.
Set in New England in the 1630s, The Witch follows William’s Puritan family who have been excommunicated from the community on a Puritan Christian plantation. They begin to start their new life on a remote and isolated farm, which happens to be located beside a large, ominous forest which has an instant and looming presence. William’s wife Katherine, played by Kate Dickie, gives birth to her fifth child, Samuel, after a few months of the family living in exile. The eldest daughter Thomasin, played by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, is playing with Samuel when he suddenly vanishes when she covers her eyes for a brief moment. The disappearance of William and Kate’s youngest child sets in motion the suspense filled tale that is to come. Fears of isolation, religious extremism and witchcraft play major parts in allowing for Eggers to experiment expertly with the horror genre in a new and refreshing way that is not often seen in recent cinema.
Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is extremely powerful and effective in conveying the hysteria and chaos amidst this desolate and brooding landscape. Lingering shots on the horrific events that unfold enable this thought-provoking piece to truly flourish as Eggers builds up the tension and reinforces an uncomfortable tone throughout. The film was shot mostly with available and natural light to create a realistic visual landscape but with many frames looking drained of colour this created a rather gloomy and bleak aesthetic which suits the events unfolding within the narrative. Eggers is successful in getting the most out of his actors, and by casting unknown actors to play the children there is a sense that the viewer is watching real events unfold. Anya Taylor-Joy is a revelation as Thomasin as she brings an equal mix of vulnerability and threatening malevolence to the role. The phenomenal acting in The Witch isn’t only limited to human roles in a film which boasts an astonishing yet surprisingly terrifying performance from a goat in the form of Black Phillip.
Rather than relying on cheap jump scares and other conventional horror tropes like many modern horror films, Eggers defies genre restrictions and his vision of this New England folktale is so much more compelling than a generic piece intent on scaring its audiences. What is truly frightening about The Witch is the place it bears in America’s history. With the film being based on writings from the time, the sense that no-one was safe from familial accusations of witchcraft is very unsettling to comprehend. This is certainly a film which transcends its initial viewing and it is meant to provoke discussion. Eggers’ debut marks him as one to watch if his next film, a Nosferatu remake, is anything within the realm of The Witch. An unsettling and groundbreaking masterpiece.