by Philip Price
Maybe it was the expectations, maybe it was the promise of something fresh in a genre we only get one or two exceptional pieces in each year, but whichever way you cut it “The Witch” is something of a letdown. Still, as I walked out of the theater I couldn't help but to feel I'd just witnessed something I wasn't supposed to see. Writer/director Robert Eggers has adapted his story from old folklore and stories of supposed witchcraft in the New England region circa 1630 that have been passed down over generations and has even used a fair amount of dialogue from journals and other written accounts that still exist. While this is nothing short of fascinating and makes for an authentic-feeling atmosphere that unfortunately ends up being the film’s single greatest strength. The lurking woods that lay just outside the house of William, his wife Katherine and their five children including newborn Samuel stand as something of a no-man's land that is a constant reminder of just how little wiggle room there is for our characters. This is not only true of their physical space, but of their mindset as William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life and teach their children to do the same. We never look at the characters as ignorant or naive, but more in the light of them having a very narrow view of how to explain things and thus the film itself feels trapped in this little box just waiting to burst out with the supernatural sorcery that seems to lie just on the other side of those woods. Of course, some would argue that is what is so beautiful about the story as well-that it is restrained enough throughout thus making its final minute all the more haunting. The thing is, for that final minute to be something of a payoff the previous eighty-eight have to be enthralling enough for that final one to make a serious impact and in that regard, “The Witch” simply isn't consistent enough to warrant the gasp it so desperately yearns for.
We are first introduced to William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) as they are banished from their colony for going against the rules of man for the sake of God's word. Rather than conform to the wills of man William chooses exile for his family forcing them to build a homestead on the edge of the aforementioned impassible wilderness. The oldest of their five children is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young lady who is beginning to come into her womanhood and who her parents are considering sending off to another family so that she might be paired with a boy and begin to make babies of her own. Then there is Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) who sits on the edge of his teenage years, has a pension for contemplation while fully supporting his father and having something of a strange attraction to his older sister. This temptation seems to be more or less because Thomasin the only girl for miles rather than some creepy incestuous tendency, though still creepy nonetheless. William and Katehrine also have twins in the irritating toddler stage that are Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) as well as Samuel who can't be more than a few months old. It is when Samuel mysteriously vanishes while Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with him along with their crops beginning to fail that things take a turn for the weird and the family starts to turn on one another because of it.
Beyond being privy to the chilling scene in which Samuel is kidnapped and the horrible result of his kidnapping the first 45 minutes or so rely heavily on the influential and stark atmosphere that has been meticulously constructed on a micro-budget to feel as credible as possible. Kudos to Eggers and his team for pulling this off as the film truly does transcend the trappings of small scale filmmaking and feels like a movie that might have been produced by the likes of Blumhouse or one of the other, smaller companies that specialize in horror. Once we hit that 45-minute mark though “The Witch” begins to embrace itself. This isn't embracing in terms of simply going nuts either as the film is very measured (maybe a little too much) and never lets itself devolve into silliness, but more it comes to deliver on what we might have hoped for from the established, twisted atmosphere. The problem is, by the time we reach this point we feel it has held out too long or at least not given us enough reason to stay invested along the way. When the film eventually gives it goes hard and it hurts to watch, making more than a few people around me wince and look away, but all I could think as shit began to hit the fan was that it needed more. More gore, more blood red colors, more witch. Just more all of it. If you're reading this prior to seeing the film I'm not even asking that the film go over the top with any of these facets, but more that it deliver wholeheartedly on the promises it sets up.
I also understand that horror films shouldn't strictly be about or judged on the amount of blood and gore that is spilled on screen, but there is a certain amount of horror-ridden tension you expect a scary movie to hit and “The Witch” falls short of that quota while having the atmosphere and tone to provide such scares in spades. It's like taking a once in a lifetime opportunity and squandering it because you woke up too late. At only 90 minutes the film feels brief, but that only makes the last half of the events portrayed feel even more fleeting. The film is commendable for its efforts in restraining itself from being just about the jump scares and actually trying to paint a portrait of a family slowly unraveling because of their fears, faith and anxieties, but there is no big metaphor meant to be interpreted here-this is about pure, inescapable evil that is preying on a rather innocent family and yet the battle feels completely one-sided with the outcome being somewhat predictable (if not visually striking) and thus nowhere near as grand as it should given the forces this family are at odds with. The films main antagonist, a goat known as Black Phillip, is used effectively despite the inherent silliness in zooming in on a farm animal's face. Instead, Eggers uses the animal not as an adversary for Thomasin to overcome, but rather a presence that forces the family to come to terms with what is happening around them. It is touches such as this that only make the fact of what actually occurs all the more disappointing given it isn't as frightening or jarring as the possibilities.
All of this taken into consideration, the performances are rather superb given many of the actors have few credits to their name and those that do mainly consist of little more than bit parts. The way in which each performer is able to naturally speak in the dialect of the time is impressive in itself, but that they're also able to inject a sense of understanding and emotion into the dialogue helps ease the disconnect that could easily occur with an audience. Ineson is admirable as the patriarch of the family, making his compassion as tangible as the regret that eventually overtakes him. Dickie is equally as effective in the mother role, playing crazy to the point we understand why she's been driven as mad as she seems. Scrimshaw is also rather good and is able to speak the language with a better flow than I would have imagined anyone his age could, but Taylor-Joy is the clear breakout here and while her character doesn't have nearly as much to do as she should, when she is on screen she makes every second count and every moment one to build upon the disturbing nature of the events we're seeing unfold. That's the thing about “The Witch,” it is more disturbing than it is scary and while there is nothing wrong with that (in fact, it could be construed as inspiring) I left the theater with that feeling of having witnessed worlds I shouldn't know exist (disturbing, right?) and yet I couldn't explain why it didn't leave me petrified if I tried.