Film Review: The Witch

A drama marketed as a horror movie, 'The Witch' is sober, intelligent and not at all the kind of eerie creepshow its poster suggests. Moviegoers expecting sexy spell-casting rather than history and hysteria will be disappointed.
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Set in Colonial-era New England, The Witch begins with pious farmer William (Ralph Ineson) being charged with insurrection and threatened with banishment from his small community. He chooses to preemptively move his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children—Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) and infant Thomas—to a godforsaken plot of land at the edge of a grimly fairytale-like wood.

Things go badly from the start: William is injured while hunting, both their dog and their much-needed horse run away, crops fail to thrive, winter is approaching and, worst of all, Thomas vanishes mysteriously while Thomasin is minding him. The story she tells is baffling: She was playing peekaboo and he was giggling happily as she covered and uncovered her face until the moment she removed her hands and the baby was just...gone. It sounds like an inexplicable lie, singularly unconvincing, but there are no signs that an animal or stranger snatched the child, just a forlorn, undamaged blanket.

Common sense notwithstanding, the seeds of doubt have been planted, and Thomasin does herself no favors by alienating the bratty twins and, later, by returning home alone from a walk in the woods with Caleb. Once again, Thomasin—who has, unfortunately, recently achieved the age of ripely irresistible hotness—can offer no good explanation. Caleb's subsequent return, naked, sick and raving, convinces Katherine that her eldest is in league with dark forces. Isolated and beleaguered, the miserable farmhouse becomes the crucible in which faith and family are put to the test.

The Witch's obvious predecessors are U.K. shockers Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), films that use witchcraft as a way to explore the very real terrors of mob mentality and the particular pressures that develop at the intersection of harsh religious faith and life's inexplicable cruelty. To his credit, writer-director Robert Eggers doesn't take the high-handed position that all historical accounts of witchcraft are pure fabrication: There is a coven in his film, a collection of no-doubt unhappy and oppressed women who gather to dance naked in the woods, but also murder infants and paint their pasty, none-too-comely flesh with baby gore, whose fabrication will haunt you long after the final credits roll. But he also refrains from definitively taking sides: Is the whole business a matter of hysteria compounded by boredom, fear of sexual temptation, and faith rooted in terror and frustration with unattainable ideals of goodness, or is the Devil really making mischief with these already beleaguered people, just because he can?

But for all the film's virtues, it's a bit dull (to be fair, as is the family's life, a endlessly repeating loop of harsh work, reining in unruly children and trying not to starve) and lacks the enthralling juxtaposition of scope and minutia of a book like the classic Witchcraft at Salem, whose vivid narrative draws liberally from bizarrely engrossing contemporaneous accounts of events (mostly drawn from legal documents) that place witchcraft scares in a larger social and political context, one that simultaneously highlights the similarities and the differences between the past and the present. Kudos, however, to the film's cast, whose portrayal of an isolated family in crisis is exceptional, and a shout-out to the creepily charismatic goat playing "Black Phillip," the devil's insidious mouthpiece.

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