Another week, another impressive debut from a talented new filmmaker. Stories of Robert Eggers and his methods have run the gamut of Kubrick comparisons, touting his encyclopedic knowledge and meticulous production design (he got his start as a designer after all). “The Witch” is exquisitely detailed, and its unnerving power is full-bore proof of such comparisons, even if their hyperbole is mostly premature.
This is method production, right down to the would-be farmhouse built completely out of chopped wood, the florid language pulled straight outta Yorkshire. Eggers’ research hath wrought a scary level of authenticity, and the cast dive right in, fully inhabiting the Puritanical minutiae of a New England family in the 1600’s. Portrayed by Ralph Ineson (father), Katie Dickie (mother), Harvey Scrimshaw (son), and Anya Taylor-Joy (daughter), they are torn apart by hysteria amid a rash of unlucky tragedies, not the least of which is the disappearance of their newborn child during an unfortunate game of peek-a-boo. Said hysteria largely revolves around their daughter Thomasin, a teenage girl of burgeoning and suppressed sexuality, embodied by former dancer and current model Taylor-Joy in a revelatory performance. She is no witch, much to the chagrin of her raving mother and younger siblings, all of whom refuse to believe anything but the worst of her. Is it her beauty? Is it the budding womanhood of a 17 year-old female body? When brother Caleb can’t stop himself from stealing a glance at her minimal cleavage, it’s not so much the leer of a horny little boy as it is the judgement of a kid raised on repression.
Equally revelatory is Scrimshaw’s performance as Caleb, particularly one scene, a frightening depiction of 17th century demonic possession wherein the ailing son writhes and reaches for the heavens with a creepy cheery prayer, his milky, deformed pupils belying any peaceful smile. Eggers lingers on young Scrimshaw throughout, allowing the audience to key in on the boy’s rapid breathing as a hint of what’s to come. It’s a showcase scene for the lad and a true turning point in the film’s slow-burn narrative. Before this chilling moment: an immersive, albeit sullen affair, filled with appropriate dread and unlikable characters. After this chilling moment: the supernatural comes home to roost, and the screws are turned on Thomasin to finally stand up to her family’s dogged piety, in ways both comforting and discomforting. From an ominous hare and a bull goat named “Black Phillip” to the foreboding darkness of a thick wood out yonder, nature is symbolism here. Like sheep’s clothing the devil uses fur or forest to disguise his work against the family. But the unassuming quickly becomes disquieting, and Eggers has no shortage of disturbing images in his back pocket to make you rue the minute you wrote off his movie for dragging around the midsection.
“The Witch” questions the nature of sin and the nature of man rather vaguely. It’s possible that obscurity is the result of a sometimes frustrating language barrier, however, it’s all intentional regardless. Horror is about the unknown, and debutante Robert Eggers is methodical in reeling us into this relatively unknown world of Pre-American society, where witches and witchcraft were as real as winter, and evil felt that much closer to home.