For many, 17th Century New England is a period that is ubiquitous with religious fervour and superstition. A time in which even the most respected member of society could find themselves accused of witchcraft due to perceived unusual behaviour or by questioning authority. As such, it is hardly surprising that both writers and filmmakers have found themselves sourcing such details for their own work.
Robert Eggers’ debut, The Witch, features a family who are exiled after the family patriarch exhibits distaste with the practises of the village elders. Father William (Ralph Ineson) sees this as an opportunity; a chance to live a life in accordance with God’s will. The rest of the family are given little chance to exhibit their own feelings and unquestioningly follow William’s bidding. Arriving at an isolated area placed in the cover of a large forest, the family, prompted by William, give thanks. Rapidly, it is apparent that their selection of land is unwise after the youngest family member, Samuel, disappears. The family find themselves feeling increasingly paranoid and Samuel’s disappearance proves to be the catalyst for their apparent dissolution.
This narrative may, for some, feel tired or overused, but in the hands of Eggers it is fresh and exciting. Eggers’ directorial choices, including his decision to show the audience exactly what or who is responsible for Samuel’s disappearance, is interesting. We are shown what has happened to Samuel almost immediately after his disappearance, quickly making it clear to the viewer that Samuel is not the focus of the film, nor is there any mystery for the viewer to solve. Rather, it is the inevitable impact upon the family that is our focus here.
The family, who have purportedly left to seek purity, are quickly shown to be less than pious. Second oldest child Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), in the absence of other females and coupled with his own burgeoning sexuality, finds himself drawn to his older sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). The camera is complicit in Caleb’s lust, and the viewer is encouraged to note Thomasin’s own development, a fact which does not go unnoticed by her increasingly bitter mother. While the cast are all similarly strong, it is Taylor-Joy’s performance that impresses. Her Thomasin is engaging and empathetic, and yet consistently unknowable. She is resistant to interpretation, meaning that we are never entirely sure of her actions or able to predict her decisions. It is this resistance that helps to drive the narrative forward.
The film is beautifully shot, featuring a muted colour palette that helps to imbue the film with an unsettling tone. The starkness of the landscape further helps to emphasise the increasingly insular nature of the family. They are alone, and as such, are increasingly vulnerable both to outside forces and their own fallible nature. Rather than relying on cheap shocks, The Witch unnerves and unsettles its audience, resulting in a debut that is indicative of a lengthy and successful career.
The Witch is available on Blu-ray now.