Robert Eggers' directorial debut, The Witch (2016), is a well-crafted horror film set against the terrain of colonial New England in the 1600s. Though there are plenty of scares and a tense presence that permeates throughout the film, but the strength of The Witch is in its family drama and authenticity to the period. Thematically, the divide between Godliness and that which is natural is at the heart of this film, and that split manifests itself in wicked ways.
Opening on the face of a teenage girl, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), we hear from off screen her father's thunderous voice as he defends himself against accusations that he is a religious heretic in their community. Her father, William (Ralph Ineson), recommends that his family be granted permission to settle outside of the village to make it on their own. This request is approved, and with arms extended giving a prayer to God, William and his family look upon the expanse of land beside a forest that will become their home. From this moment, the forest begins to take on a threatening presence as it looms over the horizon.
Several months pass, and the family's harvest is proving fruitless as rotting shucks of corn litter the fields. Regardless, hope is not lost... not yet. Everything goes awry though when the youngest of the family, Samuel, vanishes during a game of peek-a-boo with Thomasin. Samuel's disappearance is unsettling, and the hands at which he is taken are revealed to be far beyond the desires of a Puritan family – a Satanic presence that resides in the neighboring woods.
As the film progresses, several tenants of the horror genre arise, but they appear fresh as a result of the milieu of The Witch. Puberty is a particular occurrence that takes shape in the life of Thomasin's younger brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), as he becomes aware of his sister's developing body. It's never incestuous, and is presented as a guilty curiosity of Caleb's, but it sets the stage for future events and creates an interesting parallel with the role of nature in the film.
Nature, as a whole, is presented as evil – an implication, but there's nothing worth embracing about the forest here. The staunch Christian beliefs that the family holds are at odds with sin, and sin is natural. When Samuel disappears, a theological concern is raised that Samuel's nature as a human means that he was innately sinful. Has little Samuel gone to Heaven by God's grace, or has he been damned to Hell? It is human nature to do wrong against God and one's fellow man, and the forest embodies all that cannot be tamed by God and his followers. Even the farm animals that the family relies upon, specifically a goat known as "Black Phillip", are not to be trusted for their contact with the natural world.
Beyond the elevated approach to theology on a thematic level, contributing to this film's status as more than just another horror film (or another period piece) is the casting. Ralph Ineson gives a riveting performance as the father of this household, a man defeated by his fellow man who finds strength in his God. His quiet stoicism is only enhanced by his fiercely natural physicality. The dialogue is rich and true to the speech of the 17th century, and when Ineson speaks it's mesmerizing and rings true. Similarly, Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw have the bulk of the film's narrative on their shoulders, and yet they manage to deliver their dialogue without a false note.
Visually, there's one scene in particular that isn't as effective as it could've been involving a woman that seduces Caleb to her cabin. Wardrobe is largely responsible for this misstep, as the woman wears a dress with a corset revealing her cleavage to tempt Caleb into joining her. This scene works on a narrative level, as Caleb's sexual awakening is beginning, but the woman's dress felt more like a cheap contemporary allusion to the time rather than a recreation of an alluring outfit a woman may have worn in the 1600s that would be consistent with the faithful production design exhibited in the rest of the film.
Ignoring that scene of seduction, The Witch is very aesthetically pleasing. The lighting has a natural quality, and the flickering of candles and fire during nighttime interior scenes is particularly striking – almost hypnotic. Even during the day, the approach to lighting and color correction is highly in favor of naturalism, which really shines during scenes that take place at twilight as a greyish-blue hue overtakes the subjects on camera.
Taking a few cues from the depiction of witchcraft in Roman Polanski's adaptation of Macbeth (1971) and sharing some thematic and atmospheric elements with Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009) in which the line "nature is Satan's church" was uttered, The Witch is a fascinating approach to a time period and subject largely understood through historical texts and Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible. Even then, those are merely points of comparison, and The Witch is a film that stands firmly on its own as an unconventional genre film that has substance beyond gimmicks and scares.
My rating: 4/5