Written by Dylan Brandsema
The Witch is a film that, from its first frame to its very last, has a sense of dread and terror more confident and more convincing than any other horror film I’ve seen about a past-century civilization. Cinephiles, historians, and film critics often talk about certain films being transcendent experiences. They become more than just a movie, and transforming instead into a personal, mental, or sometimes even physical experience that sticks with viewer, looming in the back of their mind for a long period of time after the film has ended. I usually write my reviews directly after I see a film, if possible, but in the case of The Witch, I wanted to wait. I wanted to sleep it off, and write my review the following morning to see if the film continues to sit with me the way it did as I left the theater. As I sit here and type away, it has been almost 24 hours since I saw the film and it has not left me. I predict it will stay with me even longer, and the feeling, surely, will only grow stronger with repeated viewings.
The Witch centers around a family of 16-century Puritans who are banished (sorry, no, “banish-ed”) due to a clashing of faiths from their village in New England and are forced to move away and start their own farm. As expected, they struggle to find proper food and resources while trying to raise the family’s newborn fifth child, Samuel, and when Samuel mysteriously disappears one evening, they begin to encounter increasingly evil forces which their faith leads them to believe is witchcraft.
The film’s premise is simple and easy to understand, and it should be. Horror films shouldn’t have to rely on complex stories and drawn-out character plots to be scary (and, believe me, the film is indeed scary). Robert Eggers, the film’s writer/director, takes advantage of this principle, relying on pure atmosphere and mood to tell his story. For the entirety of the film’s 93-minute run-time, a crippling, unrelenting anvil of grief-filled oppressive melancholy weighs down on the audience’s shoulders, and never lets go for even a second.
The film looks that way too. It isn’t much colorful. Eggers and his Director of Photography, Jarin Blaschke, created a look for the film that, like a blood-soaked rag, carries the weight and the overwhelming feeling of constant, impending doom in every inch of the frame. Dull grays and dark browns, with shadowy corners and echoing moonlight blues make up this family’s new farmland home, and it’s a place where a simple series of candle-lit close-ups can say an abundance more than any dialogue ever could. Earlier I talked about the film medium as a transcendent experience – The Witch is a film that goes past the conventional boundaries of what makes a movie, and transports us to evil place – a place where the sun doesn’t even attempt to shine, and any remaining shred of God or any other hopefulness is long gone. If this film had come out 50 years ago, it would have been directed by Ingmar Bergman.
The performances in the film are all excellent. The film’s breakout star, Anya-Taylor Joy, who play’s the family’s oldest child, Thomasin, is often the main focus, and she does a fantastic job at portraying a character who is a black sheep scrambling to find peace in turmoil. The father, William, played by the terrific Ralph Ineson, is the struggling overseer of it all. Ineson has a voice like a garbage disposal full of nuts and bolts, and every line he says sounds like scripture narrated by The Devil. Kate Dickie of Games of Thrones fame is equally as great as the mother, but it’s the three exemplary child performances by Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Granger, and Lucas Dawson that take the film’s cast from being individually great (although they are), to being a one-of-a-kind ensemble horror show.
Here’s the main reason The Witch works so well: it isn’t just a horror movie, and it isn’t just about a witch hunt. This is a film about a broken family striving to survive in terrible circumstances under the spell of a supernatural entity. This is a film about trust, betrayal, religion, and isolation. It is also about a potential witch that lives in the woods and abducts children. As a writer, Eggers understand the importance of drama in a horror film (it is true that most of the greatest horror films of all time play like dramas), and as a director, Eggers knows how to bring the proper suspense, chills, and genuine eeriness to the film’s dramatic foundation to make it truly a harrowing experience. This isn’t a horror film in which the horror shapes the movie; it’s a film about the effects that a certain horror has on a segregated, detached group of people, and watching the chaos unfold on screen is the one most memorable, certainly most jarring, and one of the best horror experiences that I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of in my lifetime. Critics like to throw around the word “masterpiece” a lot, sometimes too often — at a certain point, it becomes tired praise. But if there was a ever a new film deserving of such a high title, it is this one.
The Witch is a relentless, unflinching, soul-crushing, panic-filled exercise in horror filmmaking. It dug deep under my skin, and I suspect it will stay there for a long time. In an age of movies where most horror films that comes out are uninspired, dull, or cliched rehashings of past successes, The Witch is a film that makes a mark for itself by being original, wholly individual, and above all, both wildly entertaining and absolutely, unequivocally terrifying. This is one for the ages.
The Witch RATING: 10/10
Dylan Brandsema is a staff writer for Pop-Break specializing in film and television. When he isn’t writing reviews or spending too much analyzing the medium, he’s writing and directing his own independent films as well as drinking way too much soda. Currently at full-time film major at Full Sail University, Dylan eats, sleeps, and breathes everything related to the cinema. You can follow him on Twitter @SneakyOstrich69.