In a trailer commentary video that can be viewed on IMDb, Robert Eggers, writer and director of The Witch, explains that what he set out to accomplish with his debut film was to transport twenty-first century viewers back to the seventeenth, to a time when “the real world and the fairy tale world were the same thing.” This is important to keep in mind while watching The Witch; more so than the story of a family banished from a Puritan New England settlement in 1630 and forced to attempt to survive on their own in a harsh and unforgiving landscape, this movie unfolds almost as a legend of itself, with all its familiar symbols and murky ambiguities dancing among and against each other like shadows cast by a bonfire in an ominous wood.
The movie opens with the family being forced to leave their town due to what its government sees as an overabundance of faith on the family’s part but what patriarch William (Ralph Ineson, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) sees as more of a lack of it on theirs. William; his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, “Prometheus”); their oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, “Atlantis” TV series), who at the time the film takes place teeters precariously on the cusp of womanhood; their preteen son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw, “Oranges and Sunshine”); young mischievous twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger, “The Village” TV series) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson); and infant son Samuel establish a farm on the outskirts of a dark and dangerous forest. In addition to the seven of them, the family has some livestock, notably one white and one black goat, some struggling crops, and a blind faith in God strong enough to color nearly every decision and conversation that we see/are privy to.
Their trouble begins when Samuel disappears during a game of peek-a-boo with Thomasin on the edge of the woods. While no one, least of all Thomasin, has any idea what has happened to him, the audience is shown a red cloaked figure carrying the crying infant through the dreary trees and taking him back to a hideout where she proceeds to perform a ritual sacrifice and anoint herself with the baby’s blood. Even more than they are worried about the details of Samuel’s demise, it seems, the family (especially Caleb and Katherine) laments their Puritan belief that since we are all born sinners and they had neglected to baptize Samuel before he disappeared, the child is now in hell.
Things only get worse from there. Tensions rise between Katherine and Thomasin, who struggles beneath the weight of her mother’s blame for the loss of her brother. The twins, who have a strange relationship with the black horned goat, who they have taken to calling Black Philip and who seems to be an incarnation of the devil himself, shortly come into conflict with Thomasin as well. As the witch and the aura around her claim more victims from the brood and they start throwing around accusations about some of them being witches themselves, the “Puritan nightmare” that Eggers set out to create begins to take its menacing and obfuscating shape. Set more than half a century before the infamous and oft mythologized Salem witch trials, the systems of power and belief among families and societies in New England at this time make it too easy to understand how such an incident of mass hysteria would have been able to take place. Both the trials and the film deal explicitly with people who spend all day worshiping and speaking to God fearing people who they believe to spend all day worshiping and speaking to Satan, parents turning against children, sacrifices and the events that follow them inexorably linked by a combination of confirmation bias and frantic hope, and, it must be said, the inherent fear associated in such societies with young girls and what they might be capable of.
What Thomasin is capable of seems to simultaneously come into focus for her and the audience. Her expression in the film’s first scene, during her family’s trial, is difficult to discern. The next (similar, symmetrical and Kubrick-esque) shot of her face that we see shows her in practiced, habitual prayer. Her peek-a-boo with Samuel is as close to a jump scare as this movie gets (extremely refreshing, for this genre), revealing a darkly playful side to her that is fleshed out even more when, in response to Mercy’s teasing accusation that she is a witch, Thomasin attacks her sister near a brook, tells her she is right, and threatens to eat her flesh. This, along with repeated images of breastfeeding and bleeding, Katherine’s suggestion to William that the family soon send Thomasin away to live with another (which the girl and her brother overhear), and a bloody, partially formed chicken egg she comes across on the farm, show Thomasin not only as a teenaged person, but also as a teenage girl in a time when teenage girls were very dangerous things to have around.
Another genre-defying aspect of The Witch that I felt very thankful for was its inclusion of non-eroticized nudity, the likes of which I haven’t seen done so utterly chillingly since 2013’s “Under the Skin.” In each scene where women are naked there are no men around to see them, and the only feeling aroused by these scenes is that of cold and alienating fear. That, along with a painfully perfect score, gray palate barely punctuated by white nightgowns and red blood, and an overall staunch resistance to almost all horror conventions (the pacing is suspenseful without hitting the familiar beats; dialogue, accents, and clothing are wholly of the period that they are supposed to be), make The Witch an extremely illuminating portrait of the societal and familial structures from which fear is born, and an absolute must watch for anyone searching for an extra reason to shiver this winter.