One of the sad truths about going to a film festival is that you are going to miss out on some great films no matter how hard you try not to. That was the case for myself and The Witch when it debuted at Sundance 2015, immediately garnering a ton of hype for both the film and its young writer/director Robert Eggers. I tried to go to a screening, but got stuck with a bad waitlist number and didn’t make it in. One of my friends did however make it in to the screening. Afterwards he sent me a quick, mouth-watering review that read “Two words: Devil. Worship. This is a hella Dylan film.” I’ve been kicking myself every single day for over a year for missing this film at Sundance, but now that I’ve finally seen it I can confidently say that it lives up to that brief review and then some.
Young Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her family are forced into exile from their plantation in the 1630s when her over-pious father William (Ralph Ineson) challenges the local religious leaders. Into the wilderness they go to start their own farm and live a life up to their religious standards. Their life in solitude begins to devolve when a witch steals their young baby and begins to tear their family apart.
Eggers did his homework here, keeping the dialogue and accents completely historically accurate, even taking dialogue from one possession scene directly from historical texts recounting a possession from the time period. The sets in this film are completely authentic, created with the materials that people back then would have had access to. These details go a long way in creating a sense of setting that feels authentic and immersive, allowing Eggers to take the audience further down this spiral into hell after establishing a realistic familiar.
The cast makes the Puritan dialect feel authentic and emotionally charged, not letting the audience get dragged down and left behind in the finer details and meanings of them. That sounds a lot easier to do than it is, but it’s really quite a battle to make dialogue like this work for a modern, wide-release audience, and the cast goes a long way in making the film’s dialogue simply emotionally accessible. There’s not a lacking turn from anyone in the cast, each creating an effective performance in amping up the familial tension. The real star of The Witch though is Black Phillip, a goat that captivates the screen from scene-to-scene as a symbol of evil and oncoming dread. The two young twins in the family will repeatedly sing the goat’s praises in little carols that are meant as innocuous, but come across as immensely unsettling as they cheerfully skip and sing verse after verse about how much they love Black Phillip and the secrets he whispers to them. These instances of children’s nursery rhymes depict one of the film’s great strengths: everything just somehow feels threatening and terrifying.
The cinematography by Jarin Blacschke is one of the film’s most striking aspects, riding a perfect line between naturalism and heightened reality in its dark lighting and subtle camera movement. Each frame of the film is dipped in dread, with the feeling that something terrible could happen at any moment and that evil could jump out at any time. Each shot by Eggers and Blaschke feels purposeful and confident, all with intent on building to a boil-over of tension and fear. The score by Mark Korven has memories of The Shining’s iconic score in how he frequently employs a choir of wailing souls trapped in hell. Korven’s score can be placed over any scene from Eggers or image from Blaschke and can immediately inspire tension.
The Witch relies more on psychological insinuations for its terror than jumpy images – there’s just something inherently creepy about that rabbit just staring at us, seeming to symbolize some unknowable evil. There’s always something more horrifying about the possibility of terror lying dormant just off-screen than it jumping out at you directly. But still, believe me, when The Witch gets to shocking images intended to make you jump, it earns them. Moments in this film feel like Eggers somehow managed to conjure up pure, animate evil on screen and capture it on camera. It almost feels unsafe to watch this film. Some images are so gruesome, horrifying and memory-searing that you almost wish you could un-see them if they weren’t so magnificently constructed. The Witch goes to extraordinary lengths to deliver imagery that you’ve never seen before that is truly horrifying and unforgettable. It’s evil incarnate, and I mean that as a compliment.
At one point, I watched a guy in front of me just jump up and book it right out of the theater in reaction to what was happening on screen with the sort of urgency that would make you think he’d just seen a demon in the front row coming for him. With this film, it’s possible he did. He never came back either. I’ve never seen an audience member react like that in my whole film-viewing life. That’s how truly horrifying and genuinely unsettling The Witch is.