The Witch (2016) by Robert Eggers
Review by Andrew Swafford
The Witch is about a family of puritans in 17th century New England who have intentionally estranged themselves from the village they called home due to an unexplained religious schism. They move to the periphery of a distant forest (the symbol of unknown evil for puritans) to try and survive in isolation, only to grow increasingly paranoid about betrayal within the family unit and supernatural evil encroaching from the wood. This film draws on the familiar theme of isolation that has already been explored masterfully in The Shining and The Thing, but gives it a new life by putting the theme in the context of the American puritans, a group of people who at the outset sought to separate themselves from the corrupting influences of their contemporary society with the help of the Atlantic Ocean. Our characters in The Witch double down on puritanical isolation by denying the corrupting influence of their fellow Christian brothers and sisters.
The look of the film is incredibly dull, flat, and dour, full of greys and browns that give the film the quality of rough wood, brambles and thickets. While the visuals might not quite pop for some, the aesthetic is perfect for two reasons: (1) the color and style of this movie constantly remind you that the characters are deep in the American wilderness, entirely dependent on their harsh, unyielding environment for sustenance; (2) the aesthetic is entirely reflective of the puritan lifestyle and worldview, which is plain, simple, and unadorned by any frivolity, joy, or lust for life. I already know which of my friends will likely hate this aesthetic due to what they'll perceive as bland self-seriousness, but I thought it was beautiful and exactly what this story needed.
Perhaps my favorite thing about The Witch is its script, which is set in period vernacular, with all the thees and thous and doths and thines, adding a sense of arcane and archaic sacramental mystery to the film. What’s incredible about this script is that it has the strength of its convictions and compromises nothing for it’s 21st century audience (which wound up being a surprisingly mainstream one)—most of the dialogue is reportedly taken from real 17th century documents. Eggers doesn’t dumb any of it down for us. Just like reading Shakespeare in high school, The Witch’s dialogue immediately jars you with how alien and incomprehensible it sounds, and as a listener you have the choice to either: (A) go to sleep, or (B) buckle up and pay VERY close attention. Most high school students end up choosing option A, which is probably why this movie is going to flop with audience of these former students.
Choosing option B—paying very close attention and letting yourself be absorbed into the film--really pays off by way of the film’s horror, which doesn’t really exist in the form of scares but rather a slow burning atmosphere that is intermittently punctuated by harrowing visuals that don’t so much make you flinch as much they do invite you into the frame and deeper into the world of the film. Where this movie ends up going plot-wise felt perfect to me, especially with the context of my independent study on Satanism and my recent viewing of Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, both of which set up important context about religious hysteria, anti-intellectualism, existential curiosity, and how Satanism has traditionally been connected to female sexuality. I won’t give anything away here, but let’s just say that you’re in for it. The story of The Witch goes some bizarre places, so please don’t look up spoilers! Go into the film with a childlike, puritanical innocence that is sure to be just fine.
The Witch is a movie that seems to be getting scoffed at a little bit by mainstream audiences due to not only the linguistic complexity, but also the expectations of it’s genre—it’s a wide-release horror film opening a few weeks after The Forest and The Boy, but it has almost no actual scares or explicitly gory moments. Instead, The Witch has atmosphere, which should be clear from the first moment that the film’s central family rolls their horse-drawn wagon into the woods accompanied by a score that sounds an awful lot like “Atmospheres” by György Ligeti from 2001: A Space Odyssey. On one hand, I feel like the horror label is going to inevitably tarnish The Witch’s reputation, and I almost wish it wasn’t being marketed as such. On the other hand, I as a cinephile with a penchant for horror am in favor of a genre that is wide rather than narrow, existing on a huge spectrum running from No Country For Old Men to The Exorcist, unified by a central focus on communicating meaning through tension and discomfort viewed from a safe distance. For me, The Witch is a beautiful example of how truly unique and idiosyncratic the horror genre can be, even when operating within story structures as traditional and mythological as witchcraft lore.
The Witch my favorite movie of the year so far (not saying a whole lot, admittedly) and my favorite horror film since Jennifer Kent's The Babadook in 2014. You'll want to see it with an open mind, no spoilers, and an otherwise empty theater.