One of the darlings of last year's Sundance Film Festival, Robert Egger's The Witch now arrives in theaters with a level of hype that is both deserved and dangerous.
Deserved, because The Witch is a masterful piece of work. Though this is Eggers' first feature, his curriculum vitae includes experience—mostly on shorts—as a writer, director, art director, production designer, and costume designer. Though credited only as writer and director on The Witch, Eggers' jack-of-all-trades background has clearly served him well here: few debut features arrive with as complete a package as this one. Set in New England in the early 17th century, The Witch is as beautifully and unnervingly immersive an experience as you are likely to have at the cinema this year. Every detail of period and place is perfectly convincing, as though this isolated Puritan farm on the edge of the unforgiving American wilderness has not been imagined, but somehow accessed. (Eggers reportedly did five years of painstaking research—including pulling dialogue and speech patterns straight from primary sources—and this holistic attention to detail is key to the unique and unsettling experience The Witch provides.)
But the justifiable hype surrounding The Witch is dangerous, too, because just what sort of experience it provides is wonderfully difficult to describe. The film is being promoted as a horror film, and in fact has been lauded by some critics as one of the scariest movies of this (or any) year. That is not so much wrong as it is wrong-minded: it risks creating expectations the film neither can, nor wants, nor would stoop to meet. There is a steady feeling of dread, but few jump-scares; there are several bloody and horrific images, but few outright shocks; there is an almost unbearable tension, but it is not the familiar, formulaic kind that cynically plays your adrenal glands like an instrument. Viewers expecting slasher-film ultra-violence or Hollywood ghost-story scares—and I was aware of a few such viewers in my screening—will be disappointed by, even resistant to, the uniquely disquieting nightmare of The Witch.
Making nearly as exciting a feature film debut as Eggers' own, Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin, the eldest of five children of devout William and Catherine (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, both excellent here, and both familiar to my readers from HBO's Game of Thrones.) At the beginning of the film, the family—due to some stubborn but unspecified religious disagreements—has been cast out of their settlement, and forced to fend for themselves in isolation at the edge of the New England woods.
And in the woods, of course, is a witch. It is not long before things begin to go badly, badly wrong for this family, and soon the family begins to turn on itself in increasingly desperate attempts to understand and escape the curse under which they have fallen.
There are two ways to go with these (literal and figurative) "witch-hunt" stories, and Eggers somehow manages to sustain both simultaneously. In the first place, there really is a witch: she makes her first appearance early and indelibly, as purely evil a creature as we're likely to see on-screen all year. Part of the immersive experience of The Witch is that Eggers doesn't just locate us completely in the physical reality of Puritanical New England, but also in that spiritual reality: witches are real, the Devil is real, Hell is real, and all a family of strangers in a strange land has to protect itself is faith. The title-card for the film offers a subtitle—"A New England Folk Tale"—that warns us that this is not the 17th century seen through the rational eyes of the 21st. Eggers forces us to quickly surrender our modern sensibilities and acclimate to the worldview of that time, in which human survival is something precarious, eked out between competing supernatural forces of good and evil that seem, most of the time, equally frightening.
But, miraculously, The Witch—like only the best horror stories—literalizes superstition without for a moment sacrificing the complexities of metaphor. The usual subtexts of these sorts of stories—paranoia and prejudice, individualism versus conformity, generational rebellion, and the patriarchal fear of female sexuality—are all present as well in The Witch, part and parcel of the myth. There is a sense that things would have gone badly for this family even without any supernatural intervention. William, it turns out, is neither a very good farmer nor a very good husband. Catherine is a stern, bitter woman, resentful of the fact that the family ever left England in the first place. Eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) seems a paragon of virtue, but his eyes have begun to linger a little too long on his sister's body. Younger siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), are growing increasingly wicked and out of control. There are tensions, and lies, and simmering rages bubbling like a witch's brew beneath this family, all barely held in check by a concept of Christianity that is dark, unyielding, and without comfort. Witches and the Devil may be real, and they are definitely horrifying, but they also can come to seem viable alternatives to a miserable, hardscrabble, unforgiving belief system in which women are subjugated for their sexuality, and innocent children are told they are doomed by birth to the fires of Hell.
I have a few, very minor quibbles with The Witch—for one thing, I wish it had ended just one or two shots before it does—but they don't take away from this stunning and haunting film. The cast is uniformly excellent—Taylor-Joy in particular seems destined for as large a career as she wants—but the real thrill here is in witnessing the assured debut of Robert Eggers. With the narrative simplicity of the darkest fairy tale, but dense with psychological and spiritual complexity, there's little doubt that The Witch heralds the arrival of a major new talent.