I’ll be honest, this is a difficult film to discuss without divulging too much information. Before seeing it, the most I knew about The Witch was that it was about a family of New World settlers encountering supernatural happenings due to a witch in the woods. I was… half right? See, I’m holding back becasue I’m worried about spoiling it for you. You really do benefit from going into it blind, or at least with very little understanding, and for that reason I was even hesitant to write a review, but I also really loved it so therein lies my dilemma.
Here’s the deal, I’m going to keep this as spoiler-free as I possibly can, I’ll try my hardest, but if you don’t want to know too much about it, then turn back now. WAIT! Actually, there’s one more thing I want to say before you hit the back button, or the little x, or however you normally leave this site after accidentally clicking on the link. The Witch is not for casual horror movie fans. Just because you love Jason, or Freddy, or liked a couple of the SAW movies, or watch The Walking Dead regularly does not mean that this is for you. This isn’t some stuff-jumps-out-and-scares-the-shit-out-of-you-but-everything-wraps-up-neatly-in-the-end horror movie. There is no redemption here, and that can be soul-shaking for some people. This film is deep, and dark, and disturbing at times. Scratch that. It’s disturbing MOST of the time. Scratch THAT. It’s disturbing ALL THE WAY THROUGH. At the time I’m writing this sentence, I’ve been out of the theater for about 5 hours and I’m still having shivers every few minutes. I watch a lot of horror movies and things don’t normally effect me like that, so you should listen to me when I say, only see this if you’re a true, deep in your soul, committed to the genre, horror film devotee. I want this movie to make money so that we get more films like it, but I also feel a responsibility to anyone who may read this to let them know what they’re getting themselves into in the event that they’re skeptical about it. To support my opinion, I submit to you a comment from Bram Stoker Award winning horror author Brian Keene:
THE VVITCH is a gorgeous, thoughtful, scary horror film that 90% of the people in the theater with you will be too stupid to understand.
— BrianKeene (@BrianKeene) February 21, 2016
I experienced the truth of this statement first hand. As I was going into the theater to buy my ticket, a couple came up next to me to buy tickets for the movie also. The guy looked like he would be more comfortable seeing 13 Hours, and the girl looked like she would be more comfortable seeing The Choice. But alas, this is what they decided to do with their date day. A little over half way through the movie I heard a sound that was either laughing or crying. It was crying. Specifically, the girl from the lobby was crying. Not weeping, or sobbing, necessarily, but she was definitely crying and she was trying to hide it. I felt bad for her because based on her enthusiasm at the box office window she was obviously the one who thought this would be a good idea and she was deeply, painfully regretting that decision. After the movie I saw the guy waiting outside the ladies restroom, presumably for her, and he had this look on his face that seemed to say, “Dude. What in the unholy hell was that s**t?”
There are a lot of factors that go into making The Witch so unsettling and creepy. For starters, the atmosphere of the whole film is very tense. Within the first 15 minutes or so, we see some pretty horrible stuff go down and that really sets the pace for the rest of the movie. It’s kind of like the cinematic equivalent to being buried alive in a box; Very early on the audience is forced to abandon hope and accept what is happening, and there’s literally nothing you can do about it. Every scene where something little happens has you wondering if something terrible is about to happen. For as many pregnant moments of terror, there are an equal amount of impotent moments that exist only to keep you scared. I think the the best way I could explain it is like when someone hits you, and then they do that thing where the they pull back and threaten to hit you again and so you flinch but then they don’t actually hit you. It’s like that. It has flinch moments carefully inserted between the sucker-punches and the bitch-slaps to keep your attention.
The acting in the film is absolutely amazing. It’s a small cast, with 95% of the movie only carried by the actors that portray the family, but they do a hell of job. I can’t imagine it was easy for them either. The things they have to be a part of to help encapsulate the tone of the film are hard enough to watch at times, actually performing them must have worn on their psyches. The patriarch of the family is played by Ralph Ineson, who is probably most familiar to you as Dagmer Cleftjaw from Game of Thrones, and/or as Amycus Carrow from the Harry Potter films. He has this incredibly distinctive voice that is deep and gravelly that, while it’s still very intimidating, manages to avoid being menacing. He never comes across threatening or cruel, you just see him as a weathered old farmer who’s trying to do the best he can for his family. His wife is played by Kate Dickie, who you will know as Lysa Arryn from Game of Thrones. While the entire family experiences a collective mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical destruction, Dickie’s role as the mother, Katherine, is the one that displays the most noticeable breakdown. She does a fantastic job of beginning that decent into madness that we all see coming, but have no idea exactly to what depth it will reach.
Arguably, the main character of the film is oldest daughter Thomasin, played flawlessly by Anya Taylor-Joy. Thomasin is a simple girl. She carries burden, but not too deeply. By the end of the film she seems like a completely different person but when you look back you wonder if maybe the core of who she is hasn’t actually changed all that much. She’s not weak, but she’s naive, or perhaps, “unsophisticated” is a more appropriate term. She loves her family, and at first glance that appears to be enough for her, but then after the credits roll you question whether or not this is true. I was very impressed with her performance and I genuinely hope she’s wise and selective about the rolls she takes in the future. Too often, incredibly talented young actresses make a big splash in the indie film scene and then move on to the Hollywood big leagues and end up just another face in the deluge of new young actresses. It’s a shame, but it happens. I think Taylor-Joy has is in a prime spot to move her career forward in a good direction and I’m eager to see what she takes on next.
The other children are all perfect in their roles as well. The youngest, the twins, are played by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson. They look to be all of maybe 5 or 6 years old, but they bring an energy and presence that is far beyond their young years. The oldest son, Caleb, is played by l, who I estimate is about 11 or 12 years old. He’s… kind of brilliant actually. He’s the one who clearly has the most vocal skepticism (albeit, fear based) about the family’s faith and there are two scenes in the film that correlate well to kind of complete his feelings, and both are powerful moments that Scrimshaw performs amazingly. The first is a conversation he has with his father in the woods while they’re tracking animals for food, and the other happens a little later and I won’t spoil it, but when you see it you’ll be like, “Oh my god. That kid can ACT.” Now that I really think about it. Caleb might even be the most complex character in the film. There are a lot more layers to him than you notice at first but when you go back and think about all of it you start to see how they compound to make up his character.
One thing you’ll have noticed about the pictures I’ve used so far in this article is that they all have a dull, gray-ish tone about them. The whole movie is like this basically. Although this is his first feature film, director Robert Eggers seems to have an astute eye for what cinematography style will best capture what tone he’s trying to convey and in The Witch he goes towards the sinister with those gray’s I mentioned, and using a lot of ominous shots. There are small shots that make you feel claustrophobic, or like you’re backed into a corner with nowhere to go and you just have to witness the terror, but then there are a lot of wide scope, big picture moments that serve to show you more of the location and the characters smallness by comparison. Like, of course the people stand little chance when the very environment they’re a part of is so grand and menacing. Partnered with those shots is an absolutly fantastic score that adds so much to make the suspense more paralyzing.
Eggers uses a lot of powerful imagery as well. Like, A LOT. There’s the black goat known as Black Phillip. He’s creepy, and not just in the “goats are already creepy” way. He’s extra, that-goat-is-the-motherf**kin-devil creepy. He also uses religious themes to make it feel more foreboding. Specifically, he uses the concept of prayer. The family holding hands and praying together by candlelight, or the desperate prayers for peace and mercy during a gravely painful time. Prayers that you know won’t make a difference. You don’t know how you know but you just do. Then there’s the witch herself. Yes, the movie is called The Witch because there is an actual witch present. It’s not just an ironic title or something. The moments with her are very disturbing and unsettling. Very. Even now I feel weird just thinking about it. Again, I don’t want to go into too much detail so as not to spoil it for you, but when you see it you’ll understand what I mean.
Well, look at that. I ended up being able to say more about it that I thought I would. The funny thing is I was 100% prepared for The Witch to disappoint me. I even asked myself several times throughout the movie, “Does this live up to the hype, or am I just trying to force myself to like it?” I mean, even though I always try to remain positive, I have been fooled before. By the end of the movie it was clear to me that The Witch deserves every bit of praise heaped upon it. I genuinely enjoyed the movie. Maybe “enjoyed” is not the best term to use here. I love this film for the risk it is and the emotions it intends to compel in you. Would I watch it again? Absolutely. I plan to. There are ideas that I think you miss the first time around and I want to absorb more of them.
The Witch is not like any horror film that I’ve seen before. It’s certainly not like any modern horror movie. It doesn’t use gimmicks or shock-and-awe to scare you. Much of what’s so terrifying is in what you don’t actually see. It also doesn’t use use any comedy to lighten the mood whatsoever, which is something a lot of modern horror movies do. There’s no jokes, or any humor to alleviate the tension and suspense. You’re dropped right into the dark, unpredictable deep end of the pool and you either swim, or you drown. Whatever you do, don’t see the The Witch if you can’t swim, because there won’t be anyone there to save you.