The terror flares suddenly: shocking, disturbing moments and images that combust, scald, and then leave you in lingering psychological distress. Until the next flash, moral dread smolders sinisterly and mockingly, waiting for the next opportunity to shock you once again.
Such is the horror of The Witch.
A breakout hit at Sundance last year, The Witch earned first-time director Robert Eggers the top prize in directing, and in the intervening year distributers have used that indie cred, terrific word of mouth, and aggressive social media marketing to build Blair Witch Project levels of anticipation. And the film ends up to be well worth the wait.
A skin-crawling exercise in Christian paranoia and psychological horror, The Witch begins with the ouster of a devout Puritan family—for reasons not entirely clear—from their Salem-era New England plantation town. The family settles in the wilderness on the edge of a foreboding forest, builds a home, and sets about trying to establish a farm and a new life. When their infant son, Samuel, disappears suddenly while in the care of teenage daughter Thomasin, the family dynamics unravels rapidly, leading to suspicion, resentment, and an overwhelming sense of inexorable dread. At no point is there any doubt that this family is doomed, and as the story unfolds, the only question becomes whether it will be internal or external forces that ultimately destroy them.
One of the triumphs of The Witch is its ability to take the mundane or the innocuous and infuse it with disturbing portent. A rabbit in the forest staring down a hunter fumbling with his rifle. Fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas romping in the yard with the family goat, Black Phillip. An innocent game of peek-a-boo that ends catastrophically. The deceptions, impotency, and sin that overwhelm this family infect every aspect of their lives, coloring their perceptions, driving their reactions, and pushing them along their hopeless path.
At the epicenter of The Witch stands Thomasin—played by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, in her first credited screen role—whose transformation from girl to woman is fueling the dark forces that tear the family apart. Taylor-Joy delivers a pitch-perfect performance full of innocence, fear, confusion, discovery, anger, trepidation, and wonder. As Thomasin, she dances amongst the contradictions, alternatively withdrawing into herself and then exploding in defiance of the sinister influences all around her.
Modern horror fans will split over The Witch. More Rosemary’s Baby than recent horror hits like The Purge, Insidious, or Paranormal Activity, the slow-burn of The Witch offers precious few moments of sneak-up-behind-you shock, sudden violence, or gore. And when those types of moments do come, they come and go in an instant, imprinting on the viewer’s psyche and then receding into the ether, leaving you to wonder what it was you actually saw or what it meant.
The Witch isn’t particularly interested in explanations or clarifications. It simply casts its spell; conjures its brew of unease, anxiety, and dread; and then casts you out of the darkness of the theater and into the darkness of your own mind to let you decide what it all meant.
You may not like the answer.