Film Review: ‘The Witch’

Sundance Film Festival The Witch

Writer-director Robert Eggers makes an impressive feature debut with this gripping historical horror-thriller.

A fiercely committed ensemble and an exquisite sense of historical detail conspire to cast a highly atmospheric spell in “The Witch,” a strikingly achieved tale of a mid-17th-century New England family’s steady descent into religious hysteria and madness. Laying an imaginative foundation for the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials that would follow decades later, writer-director Robert Eggers’ impressive debut feature walks a tricky line between disquieting ambiguity and full-bore supernatural horror, but leaves no doubt about the dangerously oppressive hold that Christianity exerted on some dark corners of the Puritan psyche. With its formal, stylized diction and austere approach to genre, this accomplished feat of low-budget period filmmaking will have to work considerable marketing magic to translate appreciative reviews into specialty box-office success, but clearly marks Eggers as a storyteller of unusual rigor and ambition.

A New England-born, Brooklyn-based talent who started out in the theater, Eggers has several film credits as a production/costume designer and art director, as evidenced here by his subtle yet meticulous visuals and bone-deep sense of place. The verisimilitude is striking: Produced in the abandoned lumber town of Kiosk in a heavily wooded region of Northern Ontario, and lensed by d.p. Jarin Blaschke in beautifully muted, mist-wreathed shades of gray, “The Witch” (which bears the subtitle “A New-England Folktale”) confines most of its fleet 92-minute running time to a small farm at the edge of a dark forest circa 1630 — a setting whose atmosphere of mystery and menace is no less unsettling for being possibly imagined.

This isolated backdrop is no place to build a home or raise a family, yet that is what farmer William (Ralph Ineson) is forced to do after being banished from his plantation for some vague but religiously motivated clash of wills. Now he lives in exile with his severe wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children, each of whom will have his or her part to play in the tense, sparely plotted drama that unfolds — starting with the youngest, the infant Samuel, who suddenly vanishes from the farm while being watched by his sister, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Almost immediately we glimpse a disturbing image of the boy’s fate in the form of some unspeakable blood rite, though it’s unclear whether something satanic is actually taking place, or whether these are merely the nightmarish visions of William and Katherine, who fear that their unbaptized son is not just lost but damned.

As the firstborn child and the one ostensibly to blame for Samuel’s disappearance, the suggestively named Thomasin quickly becomes the family scapegoat, as well as a convenient symbol of female iniquity. When the inconsolable Katherine isn’t burying herself in weepy, wailing prayers for Samuel’s soul, she’s bitterly lashing out at Thomasin for her perceived negligence, despite the girl’s protests that she has done no wrong. William, though no less intense in his Christian devotion, is somewhat more forgiving, not least because he’s acutely aware of his own failings as a husband and father; it’s because of his stubborn pride that he and his family are now forced to fend for themselves, with a failing crop and no community support to help get them through the difficult months ahead.

Striving to help out as best he can is the second eldest child, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), a God-fearing lad who’s not too afraid to venture into the nearby woods in search of food and animal pelts. But if there’s a thematic constant here, it’s that even the most good-hearted children are susceptible to impure thoughts and worldly temptations. Certainly that’s true of the younger twin siblings, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), two pint-sized mischief makers who become convinced that Thomasin is the Devil’s handmaiden, even as they seem to have formed a rather unhealthy attachment to the family goat, the ominously named Black Philip.

The goat, of course, is a widely recognized symbol of Satan, and the presence of Black Philip is but one of many winking horror tropes that Eggers skillfully puts into play here: Between the bad-seed moppets and the ruined harvest, the mysterious disappearances and the frightening instances of animal misbehavior, “The Witch” is rife with intimations of inexplicable evil, of something deeply twisted and unnatural at work. At the same time, the film grippingly ratchets up the family tension on multiple fronts, to the point that it could almost be read as a straightforward portrait of emotional and psychological breakdown — exacerbated by the parents’ certainty that every setback is a test from the Lord. “Place thy faith in God,” William instructs his children more than once, though the implication is clear that unchecked piety, far from warding off demons and monsters, can merely wind up creating new ones in their place.

The result plays like a sort of cross between “The Crucible” and “The Shining” (which Eggers has cited as a key inspiration), with a smattering of “The Exorcist” for good measure. But in peering ahead to the Salem trials, “The Witch” also faintly echoes Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” another drama in which the forces of patriarchal repression and the cruel realities of agrarian life will exact a devastating future toll: We’re watching not just a private tragedy but a prequel to a larger-scale catastrophe, sowing seeds of suspicion, violence and fanatical thinking that will be passed down for generations to come.

At the same time, Eggers isn’t content with a strictly rational interpretation. He seems fascinated by the lore and iconography of the period (written accounts from which directly shaped the film’s archer-than-thou dialogue); by the terror and superstition that flourished in the wake of widespread starvation, illness and infant mortality; and above all by a grand tradition of supernatural horror filmmaking that has long preyed on those specific fears. If “The Witch” is ultimately a cautionary tale of Christian belief run amok, it also seeks to give the Devil his due — to illuminate a collective paranoid nightmare by blurring the line where grim reality ends and dark fantasy begins.

A certain teasing ambiguity remains, not always to satisfying ends. There are moments when the story simply seems to be having it both ways by willfully obscuring the truth of what’s going on, and post-screening debates will center heavily around the meaning and necessity of the coda, which puts a hair-raising spin on a classic thriller convention. But at its core, this is a searing, credible portrait of fraught emotional dynamics at war with unyielding spiritual convictions, fearlessly played by a cast that shares Eggers’ dedication at every step.

Not least among the director’s smart decisions was the casting of two excellent, under-the-radar British actors as the parents, whom we learn emigrated from England not too long before the events in question. Ineson brings tremendous gravitas to the role of the well-meaning but self-deluding William, and Dickie, still best known outside the U.K. for 2007’s “Red Road,” is all but unrecognizable here, allowing the odd moment of vulnerability to flicker across her pale, careworn face when it’s not twisted into a scowling mask of resentment.

The two child leads more than hold their own; whether he’s walking quietly through a clearing or, at one point, violently speaking in tongues, Scrimshaw commands the screen with magnetic ease. But if there’s any one performer to whom the movie belongs, it’s Taylor-Joy as the grievously misunderstood young woman who may or may not be the witch of the title. Capable of looking at once beamingly innocent and slyly knowing, her Thomasin increasingly becomes the movie’s voice of conscience and reason, precisely because she threatens to complicate and subvert her parents’ rigid moral universe.

The hushed intensity of the drama is bolstered at every turn by the precision of the filmmaking, which bespeaks exhaustive research and painstaking execution in all departments, from production designer Craig Laithrop’s sets (detail-perfect down to the oak clapboards and reed-thatched roofs) to the hand-stitched costumes designed by Linda Muir. Blaschke favors carefully framed, naturally lit compositions, while Louise Ford’s sharp editing, though not without its elliptical moments, never lingers at the expense of narrative drive. Crucial to establishing the film’s mood is Mark Korven’s something-wicked-this-way-thrums score, which blends eerie choral performances and dissonant strings into an unnervingly cacophonous whole.

Film Review: 'The Witch'

Reviewed at William Morris Endeavor screening room, Beverly Hills, Jan. 20, 2015. (In Sundance Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 92 MIN.

Production

A Parts & Labor, RT Features, Rooks Nest Entertainment, Maiden Voyage Pictures, Mott Street Pictures presentation in association with Code Red Prods., Scythia Films, Pulse Films, Special Projects. Produced by Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Daniel Bekerman, Rodrigo Teixeira. Executive producers, Lourenco Sant’Anna, Sophie Mas, Michael Sackler, Julia Godzinskaya, Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus, Alex Sagalchik, Alexandra Johnes, Jonathan Bronfman, Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochoa. Co-producers, Joel Burch, Rosalie Chilelli, Lauren Haber. Co-executive produers, Mark Gingras, Ethan Lazar, Lon Molnar.

Crew

Directed, written by Robert Eggers. Camera (color, Arri Alexa digital), Jarin Blaschke; editor, Louise Ford; music, Mark Korven; production designer, Craig Lathrop; art director, Andrea Kristof; set decorator, Mary Kirkland; costume designer, Linda Muir; sound, Rob Turi; sound designer, Adam Stein; re-recording mixers, Orest Sushko, Chris Guglick; special effects coordinator, Max MacDonald; visual effects supervisor, Geoff D.E. Scott; visual effects executive producer, Lon Molnar; visual effects producer, Sarah Wormsbecher; visual effects, Intelligent Creatures; stunt coordinator, Robert Racki; line producer, Brian Campbell; assistant director, Beau Ferris; casting, Kharmel Cochrane, John Buchan, Jason Knight.

With

Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry.

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  1. ultramann says:

    The Puritan belief is rife in error of Christian doctrine. However if the director is to convince the audience of the existence of Satan ( witches) then a true portrayal of Christianity would have thwarted his efforts. All the powers of darkness would have failed miserably against a true Christian family adorned with the full armor of God.
    By days end Black Philip would have been roasted over an open fire pit, and the witch in the woods would have either denounced Satan and believed in Christ….or chased from the back 40 to haunt another family, hoping they were atheists.
    Hollywood cannot, but most probably will not portray Christianity correctly in its biased non- tolerant abuse of the Faith but heathens do what heathens do. What else could you really expect?
    Enjoy the movie, but suspend all belief in reality first.

  2. PatG says:

    This is a brilliant film that will definitely not appeal to all audiences. The terror builds slowly and insidiously and the audience is never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. The characters are neither good nor evil but simply flawed and entirely too human. Therein lies part of the horror as the audience watches the characters drawn to their doom by these flaws and not and there is nothing the viewer can do to stop it. This road is indeed paved with good intentions.

    A major failing of the film is that to achieve its full effect, it depends on an audience with some knowledge of the historical period and the history and folklore of witchcraft. There are many points where the hints are subtle and many people will not see let alone understand them. Is it then elitist? I would say yes but it is still a damn fine film and that in no way reflects on the people who didn’t get it.

  3. As a devotee to the Horror genre I was thrilled to see this movie! It is atmospheric, subtle and utterly creepy. I love period pieces as well, and there is only so much you can do with a 1630’s setting. That being said I think Eggers has done a fabulous job of creating something unique in today’s horror market. While I understand that it is not for everyone to “GET”, those of us who enjoy the earlier horror films will rejoice in the austere storytelling that seems to mesmerize and chill to the core. If this review rings a bell with you, then you will probably like this movie as much as I did, others looking for gore and cheap scares will not. Don’t get me wrong, I love gore and cheap scares as well, but this movie is more for the Art lover of cinematography, rather than the date night reveler…

  4. Maurice Volaski says:

    Am I the only one who had trouble understanding the dialogue?

  5. gordon daniel says:

    I thought it was a great movie. Very entertaining.

  6. Hayley says:

    Not entertaining at all. A lot of holes were left unfilled.

  7. Jeff Rp says:

    What a disappointment and let down, waste of time and money. The plot was so difficult to pinpoint. Very sad that rotten tomatoes gave it 89%. Walked away from this one. No …Run Away.

    • SloppyJ30 says:

      Rotton Tomatoes doesn’t “give” any movie a score. It’s simple math. You’re “sad” that the vast majority of professional critics are in total disagreement with you? Well, so be it. But you’re arguing with math.

  8. It seems most of the people in the comments did not “get” this film. If you are looking for cheap scares and yet another shock-jock horror film, then no, this is not the film for you. May I direct you to, perhaps, The Conjuring 2? However, if you appreciate stunning cinematography, a transcendental score, brilliant and seemingly effortless acting, and layers upon layers of symbolism, then get thee to see “The Witch.”

    • I got this film and there isn’t much to get. You sound so condescending, it’s laughable. The plot was long, drawn out, unoriginal and bad. Just because people didn’t like this movie doesn’t mean that all they can appreciate is “cheap scares. It was boring.

    • Stella says:

      It’s not because they didn’t get it; it’s because they had a completely different expectation walking in. They saw the title and thought “scary movie — I like scary movies!” and didn’t read any reviews, which is a mistake. Had they bothered to do so, they would have steered clear of this one! I enjoyed it very much, for all the reasons you list above. For me, the mark of a good film is whether or not I’m still thinking about it days later, and that is definitely the case with this one.

  9. Nia says:

    The witch movie is terrible !!! It is not a horror film , it’s a remake of The Crucible & crazy thing The Crucible is waaaaaay better ! If you go see this movie you’re waisting you’re time & money !

    • SloppyJ30 says:

      One of the few immutable, adamantine rules of thumb in life is that if a movie (1) features a witch abducting and murdering an infant, and (2) Lucifer himself has a speaking part, the movie in question is a horror movie. I’m sorry; I do not make the rules, but we all have to live by them.

    • Anonymous says:

      You’re wasting your education with that grammar. This movie is nothing like The Crucible.

  10. valpack21 says:

    I just watched it…regret wasting my money on this movie. Not scary at all…

  11. Noh says:

    Truly worst movie ever. I watching it now–well no I’m not. In writing this before getting up to leave in the middle of it. Save your money everyone! I’m leaving the theater now.

    • SloppyJ30 says:

      Seeing a lot of barely-there amateur reviews stating a movie is the “worst movie ever” has turned out to be a pretty reliable sign that I will really enjoy said movie. I saw this one Saturday, thought it was terrific, and sure enough . . a lot of “I was so booooooored” and “worst movie ever” posts around the interweb.

  12. Kerry says:

    Just saw this and had to go on-line to get some clarification of the plot. I would say everyone in the theater was confused at the end as to what just happened. Was there really a witch or was it a figment of their imaginations. Were they so consumed with their over the top religious beliefs that they saw the “devil” in anything that was minutely suspicious.The dialog was also very hard to understand. Glad one of our tickets was free.

    • Kay says:

      We had some free tickets and picked this movie out of several with good reviews. What a disappointment! Ad the end of the movie, I said to my friend, “Well, the good news is that we didn’t have to pay for this!”

  13. Susan says:

    This was a tough watch, and most people left the theater in confusion or anger because they didn’t get it. I had to think about it for a while afterwards to really understand what was going on. I’m still not sure what happened with the twins. Religion was front and center, but so too was the starvation, and surely one could go mad without enough to eat. It’s not a movie for everyone that’s for sure, but worth the watch if you put some thought into it.

    • Dean says:

      I know I’m late getting into this but after watching the movie what came to my mind was the movie Black Death. Both of these movie portray Christianity as weak, and nonsensical. But whereas Black Death stomped on Christianity I think this movie played on the some of the deepest fears. Does God really exist, and if he does, why does evil seem to triumph in spite of the need of rescue?

      I don’t think there was any doubt as to whether the Witch was real or not, She was.

      The true terror was seeing this family alone without community, dealing with issues, on their own, without help. No man is an island unto himself and neither is a family. Evil is real and it surrounds us. But there is help and rescue.

      Pride is pretty much the central theme and pride leads to satanism, a love of self over everyone else. Each member of the family descended into their own little world and became mistrusting of the motives of the other. Who is to blame? Someone else.

      What made the movie slightly unbelievable to me were the number of witches around the fire at the end. Where did they all come from in this lowly populated area? It would have been more believable had the original witch taken the girl under her wing to pass along her secrets. But that is just me I guess.

      The girl was innocent to a degree but selfish nonetheless, and we see her joy at the end of what she thought of as all her dreams coming true. It is sad that she will one day end up as the old hag who must murder children to stay young. Instant gratification over long term faithfulness. The blight of our society.

  14. Je vizzusi says:

    They should of shot on film. Its a little too crystal sharp digitally speaking.. man, I hate when serious films are released early when the Academy has bad memory. Timely for the evangelical crazed Ted Cruz and wacko Jerry Falwell Jr endorsement of Trump. The religious rightists have always been plotting in North America and modern day witchhunts are everywhere today!

  15. Anna says:

    I would really really love to know where I can find the music from the ‘Black Billy’ trailer. Can anybody tell me?

  16. Gwarden says:

    Future classic right here. Looks chllling.

    • SloppyJ30 says:

      It is. If you haven’t already seen it, do so. If you thought the trailer showed promise, then you’ll really like the film. Unlike many trailers, it’s a pretty good indication of what to expect, and doesn’t tell you the whole story in two minutes.

    • money wasted says:

      This was the stupidest, lame, waste of money and time. How do these movies even get released?

  17. Painful review to read of the reviewers own storytelling of the story….crafting a total amount of verbs to tally a storytelling review, oh geez

  18. Brian Kerk says:

    Given how bonkers the critics have been going over this one, you’d think it would get a Halloween-time release, or maybe even December (not that it would win Oscars, but maybe an Independent Spirit nom or two could happen, especially with Eggars winning Best Director at Sundance)

    Strange that they’ve shoved the release date in the traditional “dumping ground” of February.

    • SloppyJ30 says:

      Not really . . this doesn’t really fit the studios’ needs for a Halloween movie, as it’s not really meant to appeal to teens who want a few screams. It’s for “film people,” whose interest isn’t confined to tentpoles or seasonal fare. Due to its slow-burn nature, difficult-to-make-out period dialogue, and lack of “BOOO!” scares and gore, it was never going to be a giant hit. That said, it’s grossed over $20 mil on a budget of $3.5 so far.

  19. preuser says:

    Sundance films are pitiful

    • Sia says:

      Which ones Whiplash, Boyhood, Unusual Suspects, Momento, Reservoir Dogs or Fruitvale ? Get out of here !

      • Jay says:

        Whiplash, boyhood, and fruitvale were extremely pitiful. Unusual suspects, memento, and reservoir dogs were made in the 90s. Back when sundance was more about quality rather than promoting their own films (the witch is a sundance produced feature, wink wink)

  20. GeorgeValentin says:

    This looks like to be a good scary movie.

    • kayemmdee says:

      Nope – it is hardly scary at all. It absolutely drags in the beginning. There are one or two scary scenes, but even they suck. Save your money.

    • Aren says:

      Not scary in the least. And I scare easily. Such a disappointing movie. Everyone in the theater, my group included, left dumb-founded and let down. I don’the understand how it is getting such rave reviews.

      • SloppyJ30 says:

        “I don’the understand how it is getting such rave reviews.”

        The information you lack is actually not out of reach. You could, you know, actually read a few reviews. If you did so and still can’t “understand” the words therein, I don’t know what to tell you.

    • Je vizzusi says:

      I must agree, Boyhood is the most overrated, overreacted, overreaching god awful amateurish mess ever writen, conceived and made for the screen. And Sundance even with the changes is still a Distribution game of popcorn stand deals and still withholds the true element of Film as Art and vies with the competitive game of deal making.

  21. cdhaskell says:

    I wish that any future film(series) will also tell what happened the witch victim and how the family was able to rebuilt or not built their life after the Salem Witch Trial was over.

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