Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry | Written and Directed by Robert Eggers
“Dost thou remember that I love thee?”
The Witch is a searing emotional calamity of a film. Its scope is at once frighteningly vast and achingly intimate, its themes of societal violence and perversion borne out in miniature through the collapse of a desperate Calvinist family struggling to survive their self-imposed exile on the American frontier. While religious hysteria drives the sense of inevitable doom and insecurity on which the film trades, it feeds in turn on a surprising source. Love, the genuine love that exists between members of a close-knit family, and a sense of flawed but deep-seated goodness in the film’s driving personality, give The Witch its particular heartbreaking strength. Horror thrives on violations of the status quo, and this film takes pains to establish that its characters, even in extremity, feel deeply for one another, that their daily life is one with much worth preserving.
The Witch, as befits an occult horror film set in 1673 New England, trades heavily in belief. Even in the full grip of excitation, though, the characters’ faith feels organic and believable. A scene in which prideful but frustrated patriarch William wrestles with his son Caleb’s questions about whether or not his infant brother is in Hell is achingly poignant. William, even as he assures Caleb that he loves him, councils his son that only God’s love matters and that it is unknowable. His refusal to give comfort is, in William’s eyes, an act of love. He is helping Caleb learn what it means to serve God. It is the film in a moment, an act of emotional mutilation carried out with painful tenderness. Ralph Ineson’s sepulchral growl is shockingly effective at communicating soft emotions. His loose, sinewy frame gives him a presence at once imposing and slightly lost, and his movement between stern lawmaker and shy schoolboy temper all his interactions with his family with the sense that he finds them, like the God that drove him out into the wilderness, impossible to truly know.
The cast is universally powerful. Kate Dickie as Katherine delivers a performance that walks a fine line between zealous caricature and weepy wreck, finding something stranger and stronger in the place between the two. Her demented laugh as she breastfeeds a crow in the film’s third act is a Shakespearean shattering of the gates of sanity, an augury that nothing can ever be put right. Newcomer Harvey Scrimshaw is fretful, impatient, and earnest as Caleb, a young boy who struggles with faith and the onset of puberty as his family dissolves around him and his father’s personal myth implodes. Anya Taylor-Joy, unwilling focus of much of the film’s chaos and the clearest reflection of her father to be found on the farmstead, offers up a career-making role as Thomasin. Her chafing against the burden of life as a woman in her time and circumstance is almost audible, and her ferocity and vulnerability, her deep need to be loved, twist and writhe beneath the surface as she slowly transforms from beloved, to burdensome, to befouled in the eyes of her family.
Thomasin’s frustration plots out a path to the film’s sustained wail of a conclusion, a hushed and horrible finale illustrating the horrors birthed by a society in which women have no road to power but a gruesome hallucinatory flight from their duties and bonds. Whether it’s a psychotic break or a genuine covenant with Satan in the form of Black Phillip, Thomasin’s naked procession into the forest is a chilling final sequence. With her baby brother pounded into gore, with Caleb poisoned by an apple after his struggles to accept original sin, with her mother dead by her hand, her twin siblings vanished, and her father killed by his livestock and labors, she can finally live as herself. The only path to freedom is the grisly sacrifice of everything held sacred by the world. A woman separate from the engine of her family must possess a perverse nature. It is a difficult and uncomfortable conclusion, one the family batters itself toward through their inability to see past their desperation to believe in an order behind their suffering.
Tension builds throughout the film’s opening acts as family unity slowly gives way to death and chaos. The tipping point, as Katherine, joining her husband in bed after three sleepless nights, lies curled against William and he consoles her, is electrifying in its chemistry. That William and Katherine have been married for decades, that they have learned to love one another deeply, seems eminently believable as they lie together in the frail shelter of their bed. That they discuss foisting Thomasin off on a family back at the plantation, there to serve and labor in exchange for room and board, only makes their conversation more intimate, not less so. It is this rejection that sets Caleb, eager to protect his sister, on a path to destruction and arms William and Katherine with all the flimsy evidence they need to begin to believe that Thomasin is the witch responsible for their misfortune.
Madness seeps into the film like poison. The family’s love turns rancid as Caleb, dying and pallid, rants of his adoration for Christ before dropping lifeless to the floor. The atmosphere becomes so saturated with William’s deranged need to understand the reason for his family’s suffering and with Katherine’s sublimation of grief into suspicion and bitterness that the two begin relying on the testimony of toddlers and a spun yarn about Satan in the form of the family’s troublesome goat, Black Phillip, to determine the truth of events surrounding their farm. When truth becomes impossible to distinguish, William boards his children into the goat pen, sealing up all his uncertainties and turning to woodcutting to cleanse his mind. By night, in the driving rain, he concludes that he himself is at fault, that his pride has damned him. He begs God to spare his family, but there is no release. Black Phillip goring him to death against the woodpile, and his acceptance of that death, is one of the film’s bleakest images. Only the purposeful, unfeeling destruction of little Samuel’s body and the Schiele-esque tableaux of William and Katherine buried in the bottom-left corner of a grey and cavernous frame, their son’s grave invisible in the shadows before them, rival it.
The goat is an image at once iconic and utterly alien, its rectangular pupils unreadable, its body language frenetic and violent. It feels believable that the animal, once loosed, would kill William merely out of spite. Or perhaps he really is the Devil, and perhaps he really does help Thomasin sign his book. That he must guide her hand in the formation of her signature feels crushing, another instance in which even after every sin and transgression is behind her, she must be led, must trust in others, to attain anything. Its crackling whisper raises hairs and chills blood when at last it speaks, offering Thomasin pleasures commonplace and monstrous. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” it asks her. Deformed by the inversion of her parents’ love, bereft of her siblings and of her life, Thomasin has no path left but abomination. In seeking to purify themselves, the family drove their daughter into madness.
Profound contortion of human nature in pursuit of enlightenment and salvation make The Witch a riveting experience. If it lacks scares and doesn’t go in for the tooth-grinding tension that made It Follows such a triumph, it’s because it’s chasing bigger game than most horror movies hunt. If the love of God robs you of everything you hold dear, is it best to be as Job? To endure? Or maybe Job’s wife had it right. Maybe the only thing for it when God commands the hatred and denial of the self is to curse God and die.