A puritan family tears itself apart in fear of a witch in their midst.
Robert Eggers, 2016
When they’re expelled from town thanks to patriarch William’s (Ralph Ineson) controversial views on religion, a family is forced to forge a life for themselves, building a farm beside a forest. One day, when tasked with looking after the baby, oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) looks away for a moment and the infant boy has vanished. This sends mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) into a spiral of depression and paranoia. Little white lies told by William and oldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) cause Katherine to become angry with Thomasin, and the family starts to suspect the teenage girl of witchcraft. Further strange miseries befalling the farm and strange happenings in the area amp up the tension, until the family are all turning against each other in the hunt for a witch in their midst.
The Witch was not the movie I was hoping it would be. It looks good, and there are some themes at play that could be fascinating if they were explored in depth. Fear of the sexuality of teenage girls runs deep within religion. The weight of these characters’ Christianity smothers them like a blanket, strict and all-consuming and unnerving. Given the joylessness of their lives and the scant rewards for actually following the pious, self-righteous preachings William insists upon, the children’s small acts or rebellion are completely understandable. When Thomasin cracks and yells at her younger siblings, it feels justified. Meanwhile, Caleb struggles with the distance from any girls other than his sister (yes, I know, and ew), and the weight of his father’s and God’s expectations. The two young actors do a terrific job with their characters and the complex, period-accurate dialogue they’re required to rattle off. Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson bring complexity to the older characters as well – they have a particularly good scene together after a traumatic experience late in the film, where Katherine disseminates her grief and her relationship with God and her husband. Ineson’s intensity ratchets up as the film continues, until his raving is more terrifying than the spectre of the witch in the forest.
And this is where the film loses me. There is a witch in the forest. This is never in question, because we see that she’s the one who took the baby before the title card pops up. (By the way, the witch is played by an actress called – I kid you not – Bathsheba Garnett, which may be the best witch name ever.) I can’t help but feel like this dilutes the film’s potential significantly. The universe this film is set in is one in which God, Satan, and witches undeniably exist, so the family’s paranoia is always justified. The film is shot using natural light, giving it a dim, washed-out affect that rarely lifts. Apparently it’s never sunny wherever this family chose to put down roots. The score is working overtime. It’s the musical equivalent of having Al Pacino drop in and scream lines at you every so often, chewing the scenery and completely distracting from everything else that’s happening. Then there’s the ending, which takes all mystery out of the film. I laughed out loud at it. The film is more tense than scary even in its most frightening moments (don’t get me started on the “scary” animals), but the ending is just silly. There could be some fascinating insight into witch hunts and the mindset that creates them, but in the end, while it’s solidly made, The Witch is a shallow affair.
The Witch on IMDb