The Witch

The Witch ★★★★★

The Horror genre has often been used to explore not just visceral fears like spiders and snakes, but societal ones. Zombies can represent racial strife, deformed hillbillies can remind city-slickers not to stray too far from civilization, and an escaped mental patient can show us how fragile the veneer of suburban security truly is. But what did colonists in the New World fear? What would they make a horror movie about? Robert Eggers’ beautifully shot nail-biter The Witch sets out to answer those questions.

When you’re an ocean away from home, in a harsh land that frankly doesn’t want you there in the first place, starvation will be top of mind at all times. This is the form that the witch takes as she sets upon our ill-fated Elizabethan* exiles. She curses the family chicken so that its eggs crack open, stillborn. She hexes the family gun so it cannot provide meat. Everything she does deprives the family of sustenance.

But what’s even worse than starving to death in the frigid woods? Eternal frikkin’ damnation, that’s what. To these hapless peasants, hell is a very real place where you go to burn forever if you’re not right with god when you die, so of course this is what the witch threatens them with. To avoid spoilers, that’s all I will say here.

The style and presentation of this film are basically peerless. Although I say ‘basically’ because there are a lot of great films out there. And because Eggers frequently emulates Stanley Kubrick—a fact which he seems to acknowledge early on when the family rides into the foreboding woods while discordant, ominous music plays over the shot in a way that can’t not be a reference to The Shining’s opening sequence. Moments later we’re treated to some creepy wailing voices a la 2001: A Space Odyssey. I take these to be humble nods to the great works Eggers seeks to live up to.

And while I doubt I’ll ever say anyone except Tarkovsky is on Kubrick's level, Eggers does a damn fine job of spring-boarding off his inspiration and creating his own wonderful visual style. I love the scene where Thomasin and Caleb are at the river and they’re tucked away in the corner of the frame, the massive weight of the forest looming above, poised to crash in on them like a tsunami.

Also brilliant was the choice to use only candles to light the indoor night scenes. The flickering lights on the father’s face against the black backdrop make him appear to be drenched in darkness. Like the children and the forest, he will soon be engulfed by a force of nature he’s powerless to resist.

Eggers is far from the only talent involved here. I loved seeing Ralph Ineson (Finchy from the UK version of The Office) as the overly zealous father whose hubris dooms his family. His gravel-y voice gives his ramblings and lamentations a sort of earthy grit that lends itself perfectly to his status as a man of the soil. His great height and craggy visage create an imposing stature that make him seem all the more impotent when he is inevitably crushed by the tides of fate.

The mother is great too, as are Caleb and the children, but it’s Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin who steals the show. She really sells it early on when she’s giving her sister a scare, hinting that Thomasin might have a knack for this whole “being evil” thing. Her fear and pain are palpable when her mother accuses her of witchcraft, her rage equally so when she shouts at her father for planning to sell her off. I read that Eggers initially intended the film as more of an ensemble before settling on her as the focus, and I’m so glad he made that shift because Taylor-Joy is a delight.

This was my favorite movie of 2015, it's one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in theaters, and it remains in my top ten (which is like 200 movies) today. Watch if you’d like to live deliciously.

*Okay technically this was probably more like 1620 onward, which would be either the Jacobean or Caroline era, but nobody would have recognized those words and they would have ruined the alliteration.

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