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Witch, The

D: Robert Eggers / 92m

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens

New England, 1630. Expelled from their newly settled community for religious differences, Puritans William (Ineson) and Katherine (Dickie) take themselves and their family – eldest daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), eldest son Caleb (Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson), and their newborn son Samuel – off into the wilderness where they make their new home. They build a dwelling, establish crops for food, and have goats for milk. All seems to be going well until one day when, in Thomasin’s care, Samuel disappears.

Katherine is devastated, and prays continuously. William and Caleb go into the surrounding forest to hunt for game, but have a strange encounter involving a rabbit that has an effect on Caleb. When they return, they find Katherine angry at their having gone, and Thomasin unable to control the unruly twins. Later, Mercy’s antagonistic nature annoys Thomasin so much that she threatens her younger sister by saying she – Thomasin – is a witch and will do terrible things to Mercy if she doesn’t do what she’s told; Mercy believes her completely.

Soon after, Caleb and Thomasin are in the forest when they become separated. Caleb meets a young woman (Stephens), while Thomasin searches in vain for him. She is found by William, but it isn’t until later that night that Caleb returns, naked and feverish. Katherine blames Thomasin for this, and Mercy reveals what Thomasin said to her about being a witch. Both Katherine and William believe Mercy at first, and confront Thomasin over it, but she manages to convince her father that she isn’t a witch, and that it is Mercy and Jonas who are in thrall to the Devil, and that they speak to him through one of their goats, Black Phillip.

Matters become worse when Katherine becomes afflicted by madness, and Thomasin and the twins are locked in the goat pen while William struggles to make sense of what’s happening. But the supernatural events that surround them begin to increase, and circumstances lead to Thomasin being the only person who can find of keeping herself at least from further harm.

Witch, The - scene

The Witch is one of those movies that comes along every once in a while, gains some media attention and gets some critical mass behind it, so that by the time it reaches a wider audience it’s seen as something to be admired and sought out at the earliest opportunity. And so it is proving here, with Robert Eggers’ debut feature having picked up a lot of traction from film festivals around the globe throughout 2015 (including Romania’s Dracula Film Festival). Usually, the hype that attaches itself to such a movie proves to be undeserved – or is at least just that: hype – but for once, here is a movie that lives up to its promise.

Based on folk tales, fairy tales and legends from the New England area, all of which Eggers grew up with, The Witch is a fabulous collision between faith and evil, loneliness and paranoia, that is being marketed as a horror movie, but which is a whole lot more. While there are very definite supernatural elements, and we see the witch of the title very early on, this isn’t just a horror movie, this is a powerful drama that sees one family fall apart under conditions of deprivation – the crops fail, the goats give blood instead of milk – loss, paranoia, mistrust, lies, pride, and arrogance. The true horror is seeing this otherwise contented family undone by the loss of a child and the subsequent emotions that develop, and which each member is unable to deal with. By placing them in the middle of a forest, with no close neighbours to help, and leaving them to deal with the isolation that all that brings, Eggers exposes the fragility of faith and the inherent strains brought about by personal sacrifice.

The supernatural elements are well handled, and for once there’s no attempt at allegory or making it seem as if it’s all coincidence, or that there’s a more rational explanation for everything. Here, there is a witch, and we see her clearly, and there’s no room for doubt that she is responsible for setting in motion the events that lead to the family’s downfall. Without any possible ambiguity to muddy things, the straightforward horror of the situation is allowed to take hold, and as mutual suspicion leads to paranoia and then to madness and death, the movie is pitiless in its observational nature, leaving the viewer to watch a series of scenes in the movie’s last twenty minutes that signpost an outcome that is inevitable, even if the way in which it all happens isn’t.

Eggers’ confidence in the material, which is often very dark and uncomfortable – the scene where Caleb revels in a kind of sexual ecstacy is a good case in point – is aided by a trio of superb performances from Taylor-Joy, Ineson, and Dickie. The casting of Ineson and Dickie is particularly important: their accents and English speech would have been the norm at that time, and they both have a clear grasp of the religious and moral underpinning that their characters rely so heavily on. But as all that certainty begins to crumble, both actors retain an honesty in their performances that make their eventual fates all the more affecting. Taylor-Joy is similarly impressive in a role that, if  the movie had been set somehow in modern times, would have reduced her to little more than the screaming virgin who gets chased through the woods. But Thomasin proves to be more than that, and there’s a scene where she confronts William over his behaviour that is compelling for the way in which the hypocrisy of William’s religious stance is exposed as a cruel sham (and which gives both actors the chance to highlight the true cause of the family’s problems).

The soundtrack is a big part of the movie’s effectiveness, with dissonant noises and choral sounds reaching their own kind of fever pitch, and serving to illustrate the weird nature of the events taking place, as well as being eerie in their own right. The score by Mark Korven is also highly evocative, and has an unsettling nature to it that is occasionally unnerving when allied to the visuals. Those visuals are expertly composed by Jarin Blaschke, and the dour, oppressive feel of the Canadian location where the movie was made, is evident in almost every exterior shot. And Louise Ford’s careful, measured editing style adds further lustre to a movie that, otherwise, could have lapsed into wilful obscurity in terms of the narrative and its intensions.

Rating: 8/10 – an unnerving examination of one family’s disintegration due to a lack of true faith in themselves, The Witch is a horror movie that works on several levels and has an embarrassment of riches, not least in its casting; Eggers’ confidence in the material and the way it holds together is compelling, and the whole thing is drenched in the kind of suffocating atmosphere that lingers long after the movie has ended.