Tense and atmospheric only begins to describe the overall effect of this unusual film

An age old fable of what is and what should be, The Witch is a haunting debut from American director Robert Eggers. And since it was revealed on the festival circuit late last year, it has been hard to avoid the buzz that the film has been generating. In a way, it seems an injustice to classify The Witch as a horror film – with all the jump-scares and staid predictability that the label can sometimes imply. This is a very different kind of animal.
Set in New England in the 1630s, the film follows a Puritan family as they try to set up their own farm after being exiled from the local community. We are not privy to the exact set of circumstances that led to them becoming pariahs – save to say that in theological melting pot of the New World, some interpretations of the gospels are more contentious than others.
Game of Thrones’ Ralph Ineson is the formidable patriarch of the group, William. Taut, gravelly, and perennially chopping wood, Ineson’s character is built of equal parts Yorkshire swagger and Protestant zeal, as he leads his family into the depths of the New England wilderness to establish their new home.
Filmed in one of the most remote parts of Ontario, The Witch plays out against a stunning natural backdrop, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke is able to capture an untouched Eden that is brimming with menace. The tangled woods, the slow-swelling brooks, the mud-brown farmyards, and the ashen skies make Van Gogh’s snow covered fields look colourful in comparison. The Witch is a film that wants to explore shades of grey in as many ways as possible.
Tragedy strikes the family when their new born infant mysteriously disappears. Katherine, the distraught mother (Kate Dickie, another familiar face from the Game of Thrones cast) is resistant to the grim resignation that husband advocates. Cowled in despair, she prays fervently for the return of her child, and grows deeply suspicious of her eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), under whose watch the child disappeared. It is the outstanding performance of greenhorn actor Taylor-Joy on which much of the brilliance of The Witch hangs.
Thomasin’s coming of age – and the change in the family structure that her journey into adulthood brings – is a threat that looms as large as the dank woods and their supernatural secrets. In the bleak Puritan landscape, natural human desires boil and bubble until the cauldron lid falls aside. In an atmosphere heavy with grief and mounting paranoia, Thomasin remains the one character on screen that we feel we can relate to as the story builds and the family’s struggles continue.
It is a small but extremely strong cast, and while Taylor-Joy and Ineson provide much of the drive, there is also an incredible performance from young actor Harvey Shrimshaw, who provides one of the most memorable scenes in the film; and great support from the even younger actors Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger, who play a pair of increasingly creepy fraternal twins.
There is plenty to be horrified about, but here’s where the horror label can fail – because over the course of the film, there are very few moments that will make you jump. Rather, from the opening sequence, The Witch conjures up a feeling of dread and discomfort that persists right up until its close 92 minutes later. At its heart, this is a film about the war between the chaos of nature and the order of human morality. William may continually chop wood, but he can never fell the forest. An enlightening, chilling, and memorable film, Robert Eggers has created something genuinely spellbinding with The Witch.
Verdict: 9/10