“Would you like to live deliciously?” This psychological horror, a debut feature of writer/director Robert Eggers, was a success at Sundance last year, winning the best directing award for a dramatic feature. Set in 17th century New England, America, in the early years of colonialism, a puritan family are banished from their plantation for vague, religion based, reasons. They move to an uninhabited area by a large forest. The family consist of William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), their oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson), and new born Samuel (I apologise to the baby/babies that played the part as I cannot find their names anywhere, my bad). When Samuel is snatched away by unseen forces the family begin to fear they are falling victim to a witch/assorted devilry.
The film manages to maintain a steady, restrained pace throughout without losing the viewer’s focus. I began feeling a haunting unease about five minutes in that barely let up until the end. Eggers control and restraint in his direction kept me gripped, along with a dazzling array of visual imagery that both enthrals and horrifies. The fiercely concise filmmaking keeps the narrative, and motivations of the characters clearly represented, and is complimented by Eggers equally precise script. The family’s unhealthy obsession with sin and their constant fear of its threat upon themselves and each other create a feeling of unease and almost inevitability of the carnage to come. Ineson and Dickie are terrific as the parents portraying the ever growing insanity of an isolated couple, whose guilt for the loss of Samuel, yet to be a baptised and therefore destined to burn in hell if not found, coupled with they’re paranoia towards their children whom they constantly suspect of sin leaves them desolate shards of ever decreasing humanity. Anya Taylor-Joy is also wonderful as Thomasin, the film as a whole portrays her with an ambiguity that Taylor-Joy’s performance compliments terrifically. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography imbues The Witch with natural beauty, compromised by untamed landscapes. The seasonal elements of the winter reflect a mix of beauty and horror, like the witches that the family fear so much. This permeates through the mind so much more powerfully thanks to Robert Korven’s hazardous, unsubtle musical score which assaults the audience with a harsh powerful cacophony of strings.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I really enjoyed this film, and I hope you take the chance to check it out. At my screening I overheard other viewers who seemed less than impressed with what they saw, or simply confused. I feel the Witch could be a highly divisive film, which even for those who dislike it will inspire discussion through its powerfully unerring aesthetic.
***** out of *****
Review by Alexander Halsall