This is a particularly difficult review for me, in the best way possible. I have written about some of the worst films of the last 10 months, but I have yet to come across a movie that I could genuinely effuse about — until now. The Witch is certain to be a divisive picture, and its handling of religious hypocrisy, women’s roles in a patriarchal society, and occult themes are likely to hurt its commercial appeal in a broad market. While the other critics I screened this film with were hesitant to recommend it, I have no such reservations. If the trailers have appealed to you in the slightest, go see The Witch immediately. This film epitomizes the image that Black Sabbath built a career on, but they probably would have soiled their tight British trousers at the bleakness and brutality on display here.
That statement is in no way intended to disparage a band (or musical genre) that I love deeply, rather it is an explication of just how effective this film is in restoring relevance to depictions of witchcraft on screen. Though the trailers may look standard for a modern horror film, The Witch represents a very unique form of revisionism within its given sub-genre. We’ve seen zombies and vampires reimagined in every conceivable permutation ad nauseam, but no earnest effort to reexamine Satanic witches through a modern lens has been made with any success since 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby.
Set in 1630, decades before the Salem Witch Trials, The Witch culls much of its script from contemporaneous historical records and trial transcripts. The antiquated dialogue may prove problematic for some viewers, but period authenticity is only a superficial manifestation of the film’s true objective: presenting a world of very real and literal sorcery, with all the contingent psychological fallout such a proposition implies. This film plays straight with the audience from its earliest scenes, offering a hypothetical scenario wherein the black magic described prior to so many people being hanged, burned or pressed to death in 17th century America occurs exactly as it was described in those witness testimonies, down to broomsticks, nocturnal Sabbaths and infanticidal blood rituals.
Rather than playing any of these salacious details for simple shock value, the film instead presents them with a matter-of-fact seriousness, deriving its dramatic tension from a place of character development, as opposed to gore and jump-scares. With the exception of the film’s climax, every instance of the supernatural presented on-screen has already been seen in the trailers. This leaves the cast of relative unknowns to carry the weight of the picture through a deliberately paced second act, and they more than rise to the occasion. Degenerating family dynamics redolent of The Shining take center stage as the titular witch’s subtle ministrations set a self-righteous family at each others throats, leaving adolescent daughter Thomasin (expertly portrayed by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy) as the unfortunate scapegoat (pun intended) for her father’s desperate wrath and her mother’s mounting madness. Thus, the film skirts a very curious line. While most explications of the witch trial phenomena would try to rationalize these events as byproducts of schizophrenia, ergot poisoning or misdirected religious zealotry challenged by a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality, this story makes no bones about its position in such matters; for these characters, witchcraft is a tangible and inescapable threat.
The Witch is not a film for the squeamish, nor is it likely to appeal to religious fundamentalists or those threatened by feminist themes. Those seeking mindless action and gratuitous gore need look elsewhere, but any prospective movie-goer in search of a thought-provoking depiction of existential dread need look no further. Writer/director Robert Eggers’ feature debut has set an impressively high standard by which his future efforts will be judged, and every accolade and award The Witch garnered at Sundance was well deserved. If he sold his soul to Satan in order to make this film, he probably got the better end of the bargain. Rated R for scenes of sexuality.