The Witch is a punishing movie.
It’s also a good movie, centered around a colonial family’s struggle for survival in the New England wilderness. It’s uncompromising in its vision, and director Robert Eggers has talked openly about how the film allowed him to indulge his curiosity for America’s past, theology, the English language, and his own nightmares. The resulting horror-fable is worth movie-dollars, and here’s why:
Startling people is easy. Frightening them is hard, and The Witch aims to frighten. It pairs domestic dysfunction with primordial paranoia to sustain a tension that settles in at the end of the first act and persists until the movie’s final seconds. It’s a hard-won tension, earned through a steady drumbeat of quietly violent vignettes and the family’s constant struggle against nature’s indifference. The combination is troubling, and compels you to sympathy as you watch them endure a slow, painful implosion.
Typically, characters that suffer will also have things go their way at least once or twice, even in movies that end on a downer. Audiences and critics have reported similar feelings of trespass, as though they’re watching something they “should not be seeing”, probably because the family of The Witch don’t ever get that. Instead, their fortunes take a dive from the get-go, only occasionally leveling out to fully digest their new, fresh hell. It’s exhausting to watch, especially when the smallest respite proves short-lived and some intrinsic character flaw drags them down again.
With a few exceptions, witches don’t get the credit they deserve for being among history’s greatest monsters. Time has turned them into blunted, fang-less trouble makers who let the minions get their hands dirty. Eggers fixes this, and gives his villain an overtly terrifying physicality. While deception still plays a central role in the film’s conflict, it’s more druidic than Machiavellian. Change is affected through cunning, illusion, and strength, in that order. Never through dialogue.
To say nothing of its chilling score and visual aesthetic, The Witch is a beautifully realized movie. It’s a merciless horror story, set in an under-exploited time period seemingly tailored to the genre’s need for human vulnerability and well-meaning ignorance. Expect to leave the theater short of breathe and hungry for more.