A year after receiving incredible buzz at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Robert Eggers' first feature hits US movie theaters, and proves to be an imperfect but wholly self-assured horror/art film hybrid.
The events of The Witch unfold in New England sometime in the early 1600s. A family of English pilgrims is banished from a Puritan plantation in the opening scene, owing to the father's "prideful conceit". Said father (Ralph Ineson, best known as "Finchy" from the BBC Office) takes his prideful conceit, and his brood, out to the country to live independently. After a few months, however, unnatural things start happening to them.
This is a rare case where an ambiguous approach would have been the easy way out. Because although these fervent Christians readily blame witchcraft – and, soon, each other – for their misfortunes, Eggers shows us early on that it's not in their heads. There really is a witch out there in those woods, and she really is up to no good.
Yet what's interesting about The Witch is how it presents witchcraft as a sort of explanation for the impossibly difficult lives the early American settlers led, and how a combination of boredom, isolation, and ineptitude at working the land could build to a frustration akin to madness. Despite their antiquated beliefs and their sometimes incomprehensible dialogue (in the film's bid for authenticity, all the characters speak in 17th century English), this desperate, bickering family becomes surprisingly relatable.
Although it has its fair share of disturbing imagery, The Witch isn't a traditional horror movie – its tone owes more to The Shining than to The Conjuring. There are two or three "unexpected moments" in the film, but that's not quite the same as a good old jump scare, the cheap theatric that stops skittish me from seeing most horror films. Mostly it's gorgeous to look at. Eggers has a background in production design, and it shows: every shot looks like a Vermeer painting. (The cinematography is by Jarin Blaschke.) Mark Korven's rich, atonal score also draws from The Shining, but, with its canny use of traditional instruments and a female choir, still keeps us firmly planted in the 1600s.
Indeed, there's something about The Witch that makes it feel like it was made for a 17th century audience. I'm giving nothing away, but at the end of the film there's a title card which explains that many of the scenes, and some lines of dialogue, were taken directly from first-person accounts of the era. It's like the film is asking us to understand who these people were, and how their beliefs, which seem (to most of us) so silly now, could lead to the genuine horrors of the Salem Witch Trials, and to all the superstitions, both harmless and toxic, that still pervade society today.