A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.
February 18th, 2016
Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin
Ralph Ineson as William
Kate Dickie as Katherine
Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb
It’s 1630’s New England. Times are tough for folks of this era, but no one will be tested like a God-fearing family of seven when they uproot themselves from their Puritan community and venture out to worship and survive on their own – building a small village comprised of only them – on the outskirts of a mysterious and foreboding forest. It’s a hard-working and devout life which sadly isn’t terribly successful – their crops and livestock are minimal. But there is love and there is faith in this remote homestead – until one day the youngest (and un-baptized) child of the brood is whisked away into the dense woods by forces unknown. The family unit falls into disarray and the debilitating grief breeds mistrust, allowing paranoia and fear to tear them apart. Is it just the dramas of a mourning family? Or is there something else at work – perhaps darker forces in the form of… The Witch.
The Witch was a darling at last year’s Sundance festivities, where it was nominated for that festival’s Grand Jury Prize, and where writer/director Robert Eggers walked away with the dramatic directing award. The hype on the film has been overwhelming, as the wider release date has been pushed back time and time again. Talk about a build-up of anticipation.
And let’s put it right out there – with a rare perfect score from this reviewer, it was clearly worth the wait.
The sense of utter dread which slithers its way through the film is something that will unnerve you, and perhaps linger in your thoughts long after the credits have rolled. The simplest way to explain the emotional and mental number which The Witch does on you? It gives you the heebie-jeebies.
It was an absolute joy to watch the performances in The Witch. As a family unit, all of the actors made me believe the connections and thus, fear for their well-being. The eldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is our central character. The rest of the children (second eldest Caleb – played by Harvey Scrimshaw and younger twins Jonas and Mercy – played by Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger, respectively) work the farm as necessary, and use their infrequent spare time to fantasize and scare one another with old-school superstitions. The young actors perfectly capture the cabin fever of their isolation, the natural bickering of all siblings and the more frightening aspects of this terrible cloud which envelopes the tiny farm. They’re regular children of this time, but the actors playing them are called upon to investigate far darker places they’ve possibly never imagined as 21st century kids. And the fact that they successfully reach those harrowing and surreal depths… well, that calls for praise.
But it’s the parents, William (Harry Potter’s Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) and the actors behind them who deliver some of the most powerful acting moments in the film. Following a particularly trying moment in the film’s story, Katherine breaks down in a fit of rage and tears. Dickie takes the audience to one of those rare and painful, almost primal moments – showcasing a mother’s grief, using very little dialogue. It’s just heart-wrenching wailing and screaming. It’s one of those moments we watch as an audience where there’s an immediate and subconscious, “She nailed it.”
As for Ineson, it’s another scene following a difficult incident for the family (there are plenty of them, believe me). He’s constantly chopping wood, and in this moment, he falls down to the ground and begs of the Lord to protect his children. It’s another transcendent bit of acting in the film and one can imagine the stunned silence of the director and crew as Ineson achieved this amazing emotion.
Again, the performances are real and when watching this “family” – you will feel immense sympathy for these unbelievable and frankly insurmountable hardships they must endure – such pity for these poor souls.
The music (by Mark Korven) and sound design are as jarring as can be, and more than once I would get to a point where the music cue needed to end – in order to retain my sanity. It gets to your very core and thusly, perfectly suits the goings-on in the film. And with the aforementioned rumble of unease all throughout, there were also plenty of “boo” moments which are far more striking when you consider how quiet, subtle and nuanced the majority of the film is. There are also more than a fair share of insanely disturbing images which I found particularly memorable. Clearly, I’ll offer no out-n-out spoilers, but there’s this: breast-feeding. That is all.
There are several horror flicks which will undoubtedly cross your mind when you experience The Witch. I thought numerous times of The Others — in the formal speak and namely the dialogue between Thomasin and Mercy near the brook – where Thomasin (in jest) convinces Mercy that she is the “witch of the woods”. It reminded me of the ongoing scaring/teasing of the two children in The Others. I was also reminded of The Village – in look, feel and location. And yes, in location and that hopeless dread, I was reminded of another witch classic, The Blair Witch Project.
Fair warning: these characters are immigrants from the UK, so their very heavy accents can be trying at times. It’s a specific dialect which will have you leaning forward and automatically squinting your eyes in an attempt to understand some of the dialogue. Thankfully, it ends up feeling like a subtitled foreign film (The Witch is not subtitled), where, after a few moments acclimating yourself to read the words, you will relax into their pattern. The same is true here, only instead of subtitles, you have thick and unfamiliar accents which will require some temporary re-wiring of your brain.
You’ll find yourself swallowing hard at some of the frights in The Witch (“Black Phillip” will definitely intrigue and horrify you). You’ll find yourself nauseated by the dread it instills upon you. You’ll marvel at how you’ll instantly take pity on this family of seven as they travel a sinister path which is clearly marked “beware”. The Witch is (so far) the one to beat for horror in 2016.
And if you’re looking for something which can be described as “genuine” or “authentic”, consider this: The Satanic Temple has officially gone on record, calling The Witch, a “transformative Satanic experience.” Yup. In a sea of endless copycat (and in some cases uninspired) exorcism and Satan-themed films of the past several years (The Devil Inside, The Vatican Tapes, The Last Exorcism), be assured – this film is the real deal.
The Witch opens in theatres on February 18th. Don’t miss it.