Robert Egger’s debut feature, The Witch, may be a horror movie, but it’s more of a folk or fairy tale, a suspense thriller dressed up in supernatural trappings. Steeped in the religious conviction and paranoia of 17th Century New England pilgrim life, this is more dirt-smudged tension and distrustful atmosphere than jump scares and monsters hiding around corners.
From the opening, where a Puritan family led by William (Ralph Ineson) is banished from their protected enclave and compelled to live alone on the very edge of the wilderness, Eggers constantly ratchets up the pressure. With a combination of static, lingering shots and an eerie score from Mark Korven that reaches into your spinal chord and picks the individual nerves inside, the forest is established as a mysterious place of darkness and danger.
Simply looking at the dense thickets of sparse, leafless trees, the failing crops that threaten the family with starvation, and a wild, spirited goat named Black Philip, creates an unsettling mood of foreboding. Who knew watching a goat just hanging out would be enough to keep you awake at night, but here we are. When the baby of the family disappears during the most ill-fated game of peek-a-boo ever put on film, the family devolves into a wash of grief and paranoia, fear and accusations. While it is familiar, Eggers, who also wrote the script after exhaustive research, never takes the expected route as he plunges the family into hysteria and religious madness.
Eggers has worked most as a costume and production designer, and The Witch, despite a limited budget, is a meticulously crafted and constructed period costume drama. From the leather waistcoats and worn woolen clothes to the rough interiors of the frontier cabin, the details are perfect, and serve to further place the audience in the time and place and position of the family, adding another layer of connection and immersion. These people believe in witches, they’re a part of the fabric of their reality, and at least for 90 minutes, you will too.
One of the most impressive facets of The Witch, and a key to selling this story and this world, is how fantastic the cast is, especially the younger actors. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, both veterans of Game of Thrones, play the parents with their own secrets; Harvey Scrimshaw as the eldest son has moments where he gets to shine with a mouthful of floury, period-appropriate dialogue; and Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson are the creepiest twins since the girls in The Shining—their songs about Black Philip are the stuff of straight up nightmares.
The true standout, however, is the young Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the eldest daughter, Thomasin. Mentally resilient, temperamental, and dissatisfied with the state of her life, she turns in a bold, fearless performance that belies her young age and relative inexperience.
It’s been more than a year since The Witch debuted at Sundance. I’ve been frothing at the mouth for this ever since, and it doesn’t disappoint. A dramatic slow burn that won’t be for everyone, it builds the pressure on the family, and the viewer at the same time, until they crumble. The Exorcist filtered through The Crucible, Rosemary’s Baby by way of the Salem Witch Trials, The Witch marks a stunning debut, and is a movie that will leave a long-lasting impression in horror and beyond. [Grade: A]