There is something shadowy and indistinct about the woods in The Witch that recalls, appropriately, The Blair Witch Project. An heir to that found-footage horror landmark beyond the fact of its subject matter, The Witch is terrifying for reasons you’re hesitant to explore, provocative in its use of Christian theology and, perhaps, a bit too pleased with its own devilish audacity by the end.
The woods in question are in 1630s New England. A devout family has been banished from a settlement for reasons that are unclear, but seem to have something to do with the father’s insistence that their church has drifted from the “pure” Gospel. And so the family sets up a remote homestead alongside a foreboding forest, where the spindly trunks and scraggly branches are so thick that they merge to form a vast, murky gray.
It’s on the edge of this that the teen daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), watches over her baby brother one day, playing peekaboo. Uncovering her eyes at one point, she looks down to discover that the child has disappeared. There is a rustle on the soundtrack and a patch of grasses near the forest’s edge accusingly trembles, but otherwise … nothing.
It’s giving little away to reveal that the baby has been kidnapped by the title character, for writer-director Robert Eggers provides glimpses of a figure, hooded in red and carrying a child, scurrying through the woods. What follows is a consideration of evil without and evil within, for as the threat of this forest hag increases, the family dynamics deteriorate in corresponding ways.
The smoke curling from a chimney eschews cozy domesticity and instead seepingly suggests a poisonous gas.
Indeed, it’s the family’s theology that works hand in hand with the witchcraft. The father (a booming, long-faced Ralph Ineson) is obsessed with sin and mankind’s deserving of punishment, as well as the devil’s easy influence on their lives. A hunting trip with his son is occasion for a lecture on the boy’s “corrupt nature” and how we are all “bent unto sin.” The family’s prayers — and there are more prayers here than during Catholic mass — wallow in confession and self-flagellation and barely manage to consider the possibility of forgiveness. Even when a family member has trouble sleeping, the father says it’s the devil’s doing. And so when human frailty does crop up — when the mother grows jealous of Thomasin’s youthfulness or when the father is too prideful to admit that their crop has failed — guilt, doubt and fear become a toxic brew. Enter the witch.
In truth, The Witch almost didn’t need a witch. Eggers and his filmmaking team have such command of the material here, especially for a first-time feature in a period setting, that they’re able to create deep unease with something as simple as a shot of the farmstead’s cornfield, where gathered stalks stand like spooky sentries (or, more likely, threats). In those woods, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke take the anti-Malick approach: nature here holds no metaphysical wonder, but only supernatural insidiousness. Even the smoke curling from a chimney eschews cozy domesticity and instead seepingly suggests a poisonous gas.
There are other touches that will earn The Witch a spot in horror-movie lore. The family also includes young twins (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger), flat-faced little gremlins who have heard so much talk about the devil that they’ve convinced themselves he speaks through one of their goats, Black Phillip. (And maybe he does.) A dream sequence involving the mother (Kate Dickie) and her longing to once again nurse her baby boy still gives me shivers. And then there is the gonzo climax, in which any question of evil being within or without is cast aside and the movie goes full coven. If something gets lost here, it’s the creepy ambiguity which had up until that point been the film’s strongest asset. This finale is The Witch’s monster reveal, and in visual terms, Eggers delivers a striking money shot. Perhaps, though, witches are ultimately more compelling when they’re masked.