Witch movies can come equipped with a wide range of spellbinding themes (feminism, damnation, the pros and cons of organized religion, the sins of ignorance and intolerance, the dangers of patriarchal rule), but Robert Eggers' movie about paranoia and witchcraft in pre-Salem Trials New England marks an attempt to throw as many of those themes as allowed into one cinematic cauldron with the hope that something special boils to the surface. A lot of things do boil up as a result and some of them are spectacular, while others are clumsy, making a flawed, yet fascinating little horror picture that's both too much and just enough.
Eggers' primary decision revolves around whether to embrace the supernatural elements of witch cinema or play more into the hand of suggestion. This is the dividing line between two types of witch movies, as some opt for metaphor while others employ a good effects-enabled spell or two. Where Eggers settles is problematic, though, as he attempts to straddle the line and satisfy both desires.
Still, Eggers nails an infected, affecting tone that's genuinely unnerving throughout and the story is rife with intriguing moments and situations. Inspired by New England folktales of the time and born of much research to capture the attitude and speech of 17th century Puritans, The Witch follows a family of seven who are cast out of their community at the very start of the movie. The reasons for their banishment will come to light later, but what Eggers mainly needs to establish in the beginning is a strict Christian moral code held tight by civilization and that the family’s only alternative is to venture out on their own into the foreboding wilderness.
Before long (at least in movie time), the family has built an impressive homestead on the edge of a tall, dense woods and seems to be doing quite well. So, of course, things quickly stop going well in a scene where a game of peekaboo between eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her baby brother Samuel ends in terror. What follows is a bit of a tumble down the rabbit hole of Hell as evil forces plague the family.
Now, in his bid to put the fictional family in a truly harrowing predicament, Eggers risks pushing his picture into rather ridiculous territory. He saves it, mostly, but at times it feels like the movie’s clearest message is simply “don’t build your new home miles away from civilization and right next to a creepy forest.” And that’s a fair message! The issue is that Eggers makes father William (Ralph Ineson) spout off about how dangerous the woods can be, how the kids shouldn’t venture in there alone, etc., to which it’s tempting to respond, “well, maybe don’t build your house less than a hundred feet from the dangerous woods then!”
This is a minor quibble, of course, but it speaks to one of the movie’s bigger problems. The characters are constantly acting like something bad is going to happen at any given time, but then they seem shocked when things actually go wrong. Like most horror movies, much of the plot hinges on the ability of certain characters to make epically boneheaded decisions at precisely the wrong time. All the kids have to do is not go in the woods. All they hear from dear old Dad is don’t go in the woods by yourselves. So take a wild guess what they do the moment Dad turns his back.
At the same time, while Eggers takes liberties with the children’s mental faculties, he smartly provides hints of justification that soften the stupidity. The characters are all acting out of fear and one tremendous scene showing the kids eavesdropping on a tense conversation between their parents effectively illustrates how a family can unravel from the top down.
It’s well-considered moments like these that keep The Witch interesting and engaging even as it teeters on the edge of sensibility. When more bad things happen, the family members start to turn on each other and, as handled, it’s not exactly the movie’s most convincing conflict. It’s all a bit rushed and exaggerated, especially with William ready to throw any of his children under the bus (or in this case, into the goat shelter).
But while the family drama suffers, the happenings that push them to this point are deeply disturbing and unshakable, giving the horror elements a potent punch. There’s certainly something lurking in the woods and someone who has a plan for this family and Eggers seems to revel in the opportunity to explore the darkest possibilities of this situation.
The filmmaker is expertly aided by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who excitingly provides the most pressing reason to see the movie. His photography is utterly exquisite and will surely remain one of the most impressive and unforgettable cinematographic achievements of the year.
Blaschke lends every image a sumptuous beauty, from the warmth of a candlelit interior to the chilliness of the dense forest defined by its army of thinly towering trees, but in that beauty he also captures a sense of the deeply sinister, of the inescapable evil that has seeped into every corner of this family’s shared life. It’s immersive, transportive work that recreates the period in such precise visual detail that the glimpses of supernatural imagery adopt an additional eerie edge.
Relying on the visuals is a good plan because the performances are a little too shaky to effectively register the quickly snapping turns of the script. This is on Eggers, who doubles as screenwriter, as much as the cast, but the filmmaker manages to hold it all together long enough to make his mix of witch movie ingredients a tasty concoction. Themes of sexuality, confusion surrounding puberty, innocence lost, power gained, and spiritual corruption all roil around together as Eggers stirs the pot.
There’s so much on the movie’s mind that it settles for simply including all the thematic drippings instead of exploring them, but overeager ambition bests a messy presentation here. While the characters are a bit too puppet-like, they work in the context of what Eggers is attempting, a sort of witch cinema collage that’s potent in parts and weaker as a whole, an imagistic essay with a muddied thesis, yet a coolly curious commitment to its subject. Eggers’ cauldron isn’t always bubbling, but it’s certainly always full.