A rare gem of a film that hasn’t succumbed to cliches or traditional expectations.
A family hoping to start a new life are besieged by an evil force lurking within the woods.Set in New England during the 1630s The Witch offers a stark insight into life within the wilderness. Married father of five William must lead his recently banished family away from the comfort and safety of the plantation in search of new beginnings, if only it were that simple. As his feature length directorial debut, director Robert Eggers has already set the bar pretty high for himself. Having taken factual inspiration from historical documents such as farming manuals, diaries and actual accounts of witch trials, The Witch is full to the brim with historical accuracy.The dialect and language spoken by the cast is true to that which would have been used by the early settlers from England with their vernacular stemming from Lincolnshire. The whole world created by Eggers within The Witch is as accurate and real to the time as possible, which enables the characters and audience alike to believe in the events that unfold. Combining memories from his own childhood upbringing in New England and mythical folklore, Eggers has created a dark and sinister film about family dynamics and the evil forces at work within nature.
To the sound of whispers and hushed voices William (Ralph Ineson), is told he must move his wife and family away from the safe confines of the Puritan colony after being banished by the town's leaders. As a man of pride, William leaves the fate of his family in the hands of God as the gates close on their old life and he leads wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children off into the distance to start their new lives; but it’s not long before things start to go horribly wrong. Following a failed harvest William and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) are driven by the threat of hunger to venture into the woods in search of food despite being warned against doing so by Katherine. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest of the children, finds herself at the centre of all the misfortune that befalls her family and witnesses as it slowly takes a hold tearing them all apart as she becomes the point of accusation.
Eggers suggests early on that this God fearing family are being stalked, taunted and targeted by a witch, but this portion of the story remains hidden and we are only privy to brief glimpses of this twisted, evil force at work deep within the woods. Nature takes on a dark presence and seems to follow the family under the guise of wild animals, even the family’s black goat, ‘Black Phillip’, seemingly talks to the twins and doubles up as a demonic icon. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is wonderfully simple and understated (perhaps due to budget limitations) but makes expert use of steady slow zooms in when the protagonists look towards the woods, giving the impression that they are actively being drawn into them as if under a hypnotic spell and zooms out which heighten their sense of isolation within the endless expanse of the woods when they are within them.
The film does extremely well in creating a sense of claustrophobia and intimacy during the scenes within the cabin and animal enclosures which is contrasted against the vast openness of the outside world. The frequent use of close ups, which are enshrouded by candlelight, casts heavy shadows on the characters faces and limits what is visible, leaving the audience to search the frame for something hidden away. The Witch is extremely scenic and picturesque, offering beautiful wide shot tableaus of the landscapes. The film was shot using a lot of natural light and utilises muted, cold grey and blue tones which makes the only vibrant colour of blood all the more horrifying. The music is linked intrinsically to what takes place on the screen - steadily building a sense of anticipation and horror with every note which cuts sharply to an eerie silence at the drop of a hat.
It’s not your typical ‘Hollywood’ horror picture - but it just might leave you horrified.
The entirety of the cast is on point - that is the whole seven members of the family. It’s a largely unknown cast aside from the roles of the parents played by Ineson as patriarchal head of the family determined to do his duty as a husband and father and provide for his family; Dickie as the worn out mother fraught with despair at her family’s future and a small cameo from Julian Richings as one of the townsfolk at the start of the film. The children are all relative newcomers, but the real sure-to-be star of the film is Anya Taylor-Joy who’s posture and poise really steal the show as she tries to be the best daughter she can be but finds herself falling at every hurdle. The woods actually act almost as another character as they always seem to be beckoning and looming over, watching the family’s every move and acting as an extension of the evil force that lies within them.
The Witch isn’t one to offer up all it’s goodies on a silver platter and there are certainly none of those predictive canned jumps you might expect from your average slasher film. There is a supernatural element to the narrative and it is done so well, thanks to the excellent overall pace of the film, that it sort of falls to the background, behind the family’s initial story of survival. It’s not a complete gore fest, but fans of gore will not be left disappointed; it almost feels as if you’re watching certain scenes through a key hole, spying on something that you know you shouldn’t be watching, leaving you with a definite sense of unease.
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