The title is purposefully ambiguous. Just who is the ‘witch’ in Robert Eggers’ directorial debut? Is it Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), under whose watch an infant goes missing; is it her younger sister Mercy; or is there really something wicked in those unnervingly empty woods?
Set in New England at some point preceding the Salem witch trials, this taut horror stars Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie as William and Katherine, devout Christian settlers who, in the opening scene, are exiled from a settlement for only vaguely established reasons. They set up a homestead in the dreary fields outside a wood, and shortly afterwards their infant son goes missing from under the watch of their eldest daughter Thomasin.
William is a particularly pious man, caring and devoted to his family, but also strangely ineffective in his position as patriarch. Ineson plays him with gravelly voiced gravitas. His wife, Katherine, distraught by the loss of their child, begins to doubt her own children, particularly Thomasin – perhaps even her own faith. The resulting drama – the film carries the subtitle ‘A New England folktale’ – sees Eggers patiently allow the family to combust, every now and again treating us to flashes of the otherworldly.
The film’s dialogue is delivered with the vocabulary and syntax of the time, which lends an air of believability – and also of strangeness – to proceedings. Although Thomasin is the protagonist, we are given reason to doubt all members of the family, including William, whose unwavering faith casts doubts over his ability to think clearly, and in particular the younger siblings Mercy and Jonas, who spend an awful lot of time with the homestead’s only black goat, mischievously named ‘Black Phillip’. The only sibling withheld from suspicion is god-fearing Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), whose fate inspires greater levels of panic in the family.
Eggers’ film is more concerned with the issues of faith, family and coming of age than it is with actual witchcraft, although he cannot resist giving us a few flashes of some pretty disturbing imagery. What, ultimately, do these elements tell us? And what is meant by the evocative conclusion? That conclusion is preceded by a brilliant scene in which the camera lingers on Thomasin during a particularly sinister conversation.
That conclusion is welcome, because the mid-section of the film is a tad uneven. One melodramatic scene, played like an homage to the Exorcist, doesn’t quite hit hard enough, and is preceded by a series of dramatic movements that don’t quite come off, in which William’s paranoia causes him to rapidly shift allegiances. I also found the score a tad too pushy; although Mark Korven has created a mostly wonderful soundscape that complements the drama, there are occasions when it simply ramps up the volume for a cheap scare, which seems at odds with the film’s patient approach.
Whether or not you find The Witch’s treatment of the supernatural frustrating (you could argue that some elements simplify its tackling of the issue of religion) will depend on how you look at it. In the end, it’s perhaps more of a genre piece than it initially appears to be. Regardless, it’s a well played, pleasingly sinister film. Not outright scary for most of its runtime, and not perhaps what many fans of mainstream horror will be expecting, but it has the power to disturb.