Robert Eggers marks his directorial debut with The Witch. In interviews, Eggers has stated he wanted to make this a personal project, going to great lengths to ensure he could balance the “genre” picture investors were expecting with his thorough research prior to writing the script. What is on display is a fusion of these approaches, that lends itself to a truly disturbing experience.
17th Century New England. A Puritan family, father William (Ralph Ineson) mother Katherine, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and their younger children Caleb, Mercy and Jonas (Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) are ostracised from their town in a religious dispute. Forced to live in the wilderness on the outskirts of society, and with paranoia rising to unprecedented proportions, they soon become the target of an unknown evil dispensing witchcraft.
The film’s greatest strength is its narrative focus. As the titular beast invades the family unit, its omnipresence engulfs everyone and everything. The unflinching gaze on the characters makes their deteriorating plight more distressing. This is aided by a confident cast. Ralph Ineson humanises a zealously religious and often questionable patriarch, swaying from empathetic voice of reason to aggressor. Kate Dickie’s paranoid mother is unnerving; her accusations towards their daughter are so cruel it verges on bullying. Yet Taylor-Joy’s sympathetic portrayal is not a victim so much as an adapter. Indeed, she and the three child actors humanise these people with an eerie overtone.
Eggers’ intense attention to detail is laudable. The dialogue, lifted from testimonials and diary entries of the era, is rich in poetic diatribes, religious rhetoric and delivered with emotional complexity it deserves. Every frame is similarly meticulous; from the Native Americans casually walking past to the grim realities of farming reality, the audience is carried back into the 17th Century. This sense of accuracy, when combined with Mark Korven’s piercing yet economical soundtrack, makes the film’s unearthly visions and ensuing horror all the more terrifying.
Robert Eggers’ horror period piece is a welcome addition to the canon of witchcraft folklore cinema. Its richly textured visuals and costumes are complemented by the attentive screenplay and Mark Korven’s unnerving score. With such conviction in the performances to emphasise the film’s paranoia, this is a horror film that will remain with audiences long after they’ve left the theatre.
The Witch is on release in UK cinemas from 16th March 2016