If you happened to read my Best Films of 2015 list, you would have noticed near the top of that list sat this film that I was lucky enough to see at Fantastic Fest last year. With its official wide release coming this Friday, I felt it appropriate to expand more on my love for this film, and give you all a more in-depth look at what I feel a “true” horror film is.
In horror, the most difficult emotion to sustain, in my opinion, is dread. You see jump-scares, gore, carnage, monsters, etc. - those are all relatively easy to put on display as opposed to what is having to creating an oppressive, malignant tone to the film. Dread is very fragile. It requires the audience to work with it, to lift the fucking weight of disbelief, and to enter that world, not forcefully but willingly. It is in that foreboding that makes the journey all worthwhile. You see, the greatest horror films of all time are able to create and keep constant that feeling of dread – favorite films of mine like The Shining, The Exorcist, Antichrist, or Martyrs (2008) - these are all films that excel at making the audience squirm, and it’s not because of the effects you're seeing on the screen. A film filled with true dread does not give the audience the option of an escape. I feel that if the moviegoer is willing to not only take that ride but to embrace the darkness, they will find themselves both truly disturbed and forever changed.
The Witch, Robert Eggers’ first feature film, is dreadful. As in FULL of dread. There are no moments of respite or forgiveness in this. It’s too early, perhaps, to proclaim The Witch best of the year material (since technically this year is its official release), but if the conversation at the end of 2016 doesn’t include this film (for those of you where this is your first time seeing it), then the only reason will have been that 2016 was a truly amazing year for cinema, and there simply wasn’t enough room to talk about it. The Witch is also a delicate film – the early reviews I’m seeing that are calling this film the “scariest film ever” will not be doing it any favors. The actual startling (jump-scare) moments are few and far between, and there is also very little gore in the movie. It is the overall malevolent tone, in both the themes and ideas, that The Witch evokes that makes this film so fucking remarkable to me. Faith and religion, the roles of men and women, the amazing dysfunction of the white bread Christian American family, the lies that we tell ourselves when the truth is far too troubling to cope with or to comprehend... What is pure wickedness? Is it sinning against God, or against your family, or against the assigned role that one has possibly been given?
Any answers that The Witch offers are troubling. For Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), her place has been defined since birth and her choices are few. Born into the 17th century, subservient to her father William (Ralph Ineson) and her mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) and to a God that seems not to respond to her poor family’s plight. Dragged along with her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and the twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), to live in the wilderness, Thomasin can only hope that her new life can bring her family a certain kind of peace.
You see, William has decided that the community his family resides in is wicked and against God, so they leave to make their own way into the forest in their steadfast belief and their faith. They build a home in the wild, but poor William cannot grow crops, or even hunt food to feed his family. Their corn goes black and the wildlife almost seem preternatural in their ability to elude William and Caleb’s hunting parties. Then Samuel, the newborn child, disappears under Thomasin’s watch. Something sinister is happening to the family and the distrust, the weariness, and the doubt gnaw at them all. The hard “Christian” William grows to believe that they are cursed and desperately tries to understand how he has offended God. The mother Katherine is beside herself with grief and can offer no aid, so the burden comes on William, Thomasin, and Caleb to keep the family going.
But this evil is real… There is a darkness that seeks to snuff out their light, deep within the bowels of this dark forest. This darkness takes many forms and many shapes. Could there possibly be a witch in the woods? What is happening to the black goat that the twins call Black Phillip and can claim to speak to? It is around this time that Thomasin begins to doubt her father’s abilities to keep them safe, and also doubts in her own beliefs. What does it mean when this family’s prayers go unanswered? Could God be punishing them for their sins, or worse, is just indifferent to their suffering? What does it mean to live in a malevolent world when God offers you no comfort?
By this point in the film, the director Eggers has slowly, oh so slowly, tightened the vise on not just this family, but the audience as well. With a haunting, discordant score by newcomer Mark Coven and stunning cinematography by Jain Blacked, Robert Eggers is able to build a world that is full of verisimilitude (the appearance of being true or real). Because it is with our belief that makes everything steadfast in the reality of Egger’s creation, when things go awry, and the evil becomes even more omnipresent, we can then feel this family’s tension as our own. But The Witch is not simply a demonstration of terror. As the audience sees this harsh, unforgiving landscape through Thomasin’s eyes, The Witch calls into question the very idea of both religion and belief when this family slowly becomes devastated with no remorse or reprieve. Trapped by their own faith, they turn on each other, and the performances become as tremendous as they are difficult to watch.
The character of William is a man who hides his incapability as a farmer and as a father with his belief that he has somehow offended this God, and Ineson, with his formidable voice, is excellent as William slowly becomes both distrustful and suspicious. Kate Dickie’s Katherine is also steadfast in her faith in God, but her convictions give way to pure anger and betrayal. Harvey Scrimshaw gives a performance of earnestness and heart as Caleb, who believes in his father even as the malignant forest tightens its grip. Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are also creepy and eerie as the twins who claim that the goat Black Phillip whispers to them and tells them secrets. All of their performances are unnerving and very reminiscent of other classic horror films like The Other (yes The Other, not the Nicole Kidman film The Others. Sad I have to make that reference), and The Innocents.
But in the end, it is Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin who gives one of the strongest performances in a horror film to date. This character loves her family through all their faults and their struggles, but even she begins to question a faith that offers no amenity, even as things grow more bleak and desperate. She is left with no choices, as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, as she strains against the constrictions of both religion and society. Taylor-Joy brings that desperation to the surface. When even just a mere childish taunt to her brother and sister is mistaken as an admittance of witchcraft, and where her fate is decided by others without her consent, Thomasin’s anguish and guilt become palpable, and Taylor-Joy is just as marvelous as Thomasin as she is disturbing. Her work in this is one of the great horror performances of the ages.
I think I’ve gushed enough here. To put it simply, Robert Eggers’ first film is so good, so masterful, that I must be careful to not overhype. It is entirely possible for some of you to take this review as nothing more than a collection of exaggerated statements or claims that are not meant to be taken completely literally. But as far I’m concerned, The Witch isn’t only a great horror film, but an important one as well. For those of you looking for a simple scare ride filled with jump-scares and BOO-gotcha moments, then I feel that you could miss the forest for the trees.
The research on this film is extensive and the director Eggers has used both his vast knowledge and his research of colonial times to paint a tapestry of pure evil and darkness, which gives a great balancing act of dread and tone. With a film this good straight out of the gate, to say I’m curious to see what Robert Eggers does next would be an understatement. I consider this a film for the ages. It is both rare that an “American” horror film gives as much food for thought as it does the chills down my spine; The Witch succeeds to do both remarkably well. It is a darkness that certain audience members may find themselves returning to, again and again. God is not here, and you will find no comfort. You will offer prayers to dark, cold stars and delight in the devil. THE WITCH is scary as hell, beautiful in its bleakness, and an instant horror classic.