Is there a more potent symbol in American mythology than that of the witch?
Though an export of the old world, the witch is also a symbol of modernity – a frightening sort of progressiveness. For potions and spells read medicine and psychology; healing and hysteria. In Robert Eggers’ The Witch, however, they are also the baby-killing devil worshipers of lore, but, in the context of the 17th Century wilderness the film conjures up, even this is almost condonable.
The initial folly here lies with William (Ralph Ineson), a fervent Puritan whose “prideful conceit” leads to him and his family being banished from a New England plantation. Having already travelled across the sea, William, his pregnant wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), daughter Thomasin (the first credited film role of Anya Taylor-Joy), and inherently creepy fraternal twins Jonas and Mercy journey out into the countryside to eke out of a living off the land.
Instead of purity, however, they find only hardship – crops die, animals escape traps – and misery to test even the hardiest of faith. If mankind is born into sin as William, not unkindly, contends then amid the foreboding placidity of black spindly trees, away from civilization, they takes salvation or damnation in their own hands.
The Witch eschews simple scares in favor of disquietment and a genuine sense of spiritual dread; Jarin Blaschke’s stark, all-natural lighting and Mark Korven’s score – unsettling ambience rising suddenly into a howling chorus – effectively see to that. Subtitled ‘A New England Folk Tale’, the film shows what happens when ordinary, decent people go up against the implacable forces of darkness.
In the face of evil a father’s weakness in telling his wife a hard truth, a son’s awakening sexuality, their mother’s grief-stricken piety, a daughter’s rashness of speech – all spell doom. The film isn’t simply an eerie meditation on man’s uncertain place in the universe. There’s also a yellow-eyed, twitchy-nosed rabbit that makes the one in Monty Python and The Holy Grail look like a timorous wee beastie and the film as a whole beats out The Revenant in the “Fuck Nature” stakes.
Ineson is a gruff, compelling presence while Dickie presents the acute image of a woman desperately longing to return to her former nature and relative state of grace (even if, alongside Game of Thrones, there’s a recurring motif of deeply ill-advised breast feeding.) While Scrimshaw’s Caleb is an innocent led astray, its Thomasin’s pale, unspoken – likely unrealized – anger that, more than red-lipped temptresses or Goya-esque crones, gets at the film’s dark, corruptible heart.
If a new-born baby has no guarantee of entry into Heaven, how – and why – should man – or woman – withstand corruption? The plantation, with its almost comical clusters of blank-faced, identically dressed Puritans staring in judgment, may offer safety and security, but there is no hope of liberation within its walls or dogma.
Though it’s unlikely to win any modern-day converts to the Satanic Temple (though the group has since endorsed the film), the film stands alongside the likes of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England – if only for the language and setting – and Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers as an eerie study of human suffering and the absence of God.