Crafted through meticulous research and a remarkable passion for the project, Robert Egger’s directorial debut The Witch is a deeply unsettling experience that will leave a residual impression akin to a scar on the skin.
Rural New England serves as the backdrop for this folktale of fear as a Puritan family are banished from their plantation on a supposed charge of blasphemy. The father William (Ralph Ineson) leads his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children to edge of civilisation in a quest to find “The Kingdom of God”, but before long their youngest child is missing and the crops are rotting. As accusations of witchcraft begin to plague the family, this modest settlement becomes far more emblematic of the dominion of hell than any heavenly kingdom. This is the portrait of a household descending into a crippling paranoia, with much of the blame being placed into the lap of the coming-of-age Thomasin, who is portrayed exquisitely by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy.
Despite being marketed as a horror, many have argued on how to define the genre of Egger’s film, with classifications ranging from psychological period piece to familial drama. The fact that these discussions exist reflects the complexity and profundity of the script that Eggers has clearly worked so hard on. Eggers skilfully uses this period as a lens through which to explore themes of religious zealotry and fears and ambivalences towards the female in patriarchal society. There is a depth here that could only be achieved by a devoted director.
Effective cinema has the ability to be truly gripping, and an audience must feel invested in a story for this to occur. The Witch constructs this investment by providing a narrative that is as equally steeped in realism as it is in the occult. We have attention to detail in costuming and on-location shooting, well-executed Jacobean dialogue, and most crucially, an utterly convincing cast. The spectral threat and supernatural occurrences aren’t cheap or gratuitous here, they are instead the catalyst that work to energise this character driven piece, and in turn, the audience’s emotions.
Throughout, The Witch burns slowly with a constant and pervading tension that permeates into every aspect of the film. Mark Kovren’s brooding score and Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography that utilises natural lighting for a dread-laden gloominess, combine with an undeniable force. We are presented with a wholesome piece of cinema that is expertly directed with a desire to elicit fear throughout – both emotionally through our worries for the character’s wellbeing, and with literal shocks at the grisly and genuinely frightening scenes.
Rarely is modern horror cinema this suspenseful or this authentic. The only minor blip is a finale that may not please those who favour ambiguity. Regardless, Robert Eggers has managed to create that beautiful cinematic concoction that horror filmmaker’s dream of - a work that is intelligent AND shit scary.
THE WITCH / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: ROBERT EGGERS / STARRING: ANYA TAYLOR-JOY, RALPH INESON, KATE DICKIE, HARVEY SCRIMSHAW, ELLIE GRAINGER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW