***1/2 out of ****
When it comes to cinema that dares to break away from the norm, the movie industry allows artists more freedom in the horror genre than any other. Moviegoers often desire familiar faces, conventional narratives and happy endings - when they’re going to a movie for a laugh, a moving experience or a non-stop thrill-ride. When it comes to getting a big scare, however, a lot of people are willing to put those requirements aside so long as they can expect to see very nasty things happen to terrified characters on the screen.
I’m disgusted by this observation, but I always stop to acknowledge when a work of effective art has been produced, even if it takes a built-in audience of sadists for it to happen.
Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a horror fantasy set in seventeenth century New England and begins as a father tells leaders of his Puritan town that he intends to guide his family down a more righteous path. Shortly thereafter, the family begins a new life in a territory near a heavily wooded area. The oldest daughter in the family is burdened with heavy responsibilities but enjoys looking after her infant brother until, one day, he vanishes.
Without the slightest sense of ambiguity, the movie lets us know that a satanic elderly female dwells in the woods and the baby’s fate is displayed with the kind of sparing horror that leaves it to your imagination to visualize worse things than the movie will show you.
With the disappearance of their youngest resulting in despairing misery of the mother along with the general struggle to survive off the land, the family begins to believe they have been cursed. Fingers are pointed at the older sister for being present whenever sinister happenings occur. Unfunny madness ensues.
The Witch is a deeply unsettling film but it dodges the gratifying tropes of most horror movies and feels closer to the patient character examination of Michael Haneke’s the White Ribbon or other slow-paced scary stories about people who compromise their love and morality in response to fear. The movie has a dreary yet natural tone with no overt digital manipulations that I could detect. All of the dialogue is spoken in a credible sounding Early Modern English. This is possibly the gutsiest aspect of the film, but leave it to a determined new distribution studio like A24 to get behind a film that takes this kind of risk.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays the unimpeachable daughter bound for needless punishment, whose perspective dominates the majority of the film; Harvey Scrimshaw plays her brother who rises to the challenge of a very difficult scene late in the film; the mother is played by the sharp featured Kate Dickie whom some may recognize from Game of Thrones (where she played another hysterical mother); but the father leaves the strongest impression through the performance of Ralph Ineson, whose rich guttural voice inspires intimidation despite all the doubt it conceals.
This movie is more likely to scare people out of the theater for being history lesson with dialogue that is difficult to discern but those who stay will be treated to a nightmare world informed by old superstitions that will leave a sense of deep dread. The Witch does not aim to satisfy; it aims to haunt everyone –even the philistine sadists who go to see it without reading anything about it ahead of time.