In an interview with Birth.Movies.Death, Writer/Director Robert Eggers described what was special about his runaway Sundance hit, THE WITCH, “I was trying to do my best interpretation of what I thought a lay family from 1630 in New England might have experienced if their beliefs were real.” THE WITCH is psychological horror for a patient and discerning audience. It doesn’t rely (exclusively, at least) on musical queues, jump scares, and boogeymen to ensure a feeling of persistent dread. It expects its audience to come hither, rather than appealing to what demographics say you’re already into.
Eggers creates a piece of historical fiction which embodies the feeling of being isolated with nothing but faith and family to carry you from day to day. While the film does hit on familiar genre beats and tropes, the slow pace and ambiguous antagonist brings on a maddening tension. This only works if the audience allows themselves to empathize with the characters on their own terms. Eggers helps with this by directing with a precision that articulates the setting “like it was my memory of my Puritan childhood.” The actors help by being goddamned fantastic.
The two youngest in the family of six feature minimally, but deliver strong performances for child actors. Things only improve from there as Mother figure Kate Dickie and young Harvey Scrimshaw both bring nuance to what could have been very one-note characters, The true breakout performances, however, come from the father, Ralph Ineson, and the adolescent, Anya Taylor-Joy. Ineson has played bit roles in everything from First Knight (1995) to Guardians of the Galaxy but proves he has the intense gravitas of a strong but conflicted leading man. His stern countenance and gravelly voice instill confidence, and when he’s at a loss you realize the family is well and truly screwed. Taylor-Joy delicately balances a precarious role of the helpless innocence of a child and the authority of strong proactive woman. Her performance echoes Daisy Ridley’s breakout in The Force Awakens, and all but guarantees she’ll get a shot at a leading blockbuster role soon enough. I’d wager we have a rising star on our hands.
Eggers and Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke manage to do a lot with very little. Every penny of THE WITCH’s $3.5 million production budget is on screen. Most of the film is shot with ever-fickle natural lighting, but the imagery is never inconsistent in tone or short of hauntingly beautiful. Eggers’ background as a production designer also pays off. The costumes, sets, and props all take on a life of their own, despite their understated nature.
THE WITCH’s slow pacing and archaic setting belies a complex thriller of clockwork precision just below the surface. Beyond you’ll find a disturbing look into the ambiguous methods of evil, and a masterpiece of genre filmmaking.