There’s often a difference between a horror film and a horrifying one.
The first wants to make you jump, the second to make you tremble. The first suggests that evil, whether you can contain it or not, can clearly be defined; the second implies that evil is all-pervasive, impossible to identify or isolate.
“The Witch” is a horrifying film, one unique in my experience. You will not know every detail about the colonial family ostracized by settlers in the 17th century. You will not get all questions answered. But you will go home unsettled.
We don’t know why the colonial governor casts out the family, except for the father’s unauthorized preaching of the gospel. We don’t even know their last name. But after that brief introductory scene of expulsion, we spend a harrowing time on their failing, claustrophobic farm. (The setting’s unidentified, but the producers shot in the woods of northern Ontario.)
Solemn, patient William (Ralph Ineson) prays constantly for the salvation of dour wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children. He gets help with chores from the eldest, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Caleb, her younger brother (Harvey Scrimshaw). Twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) fritter away the day playing with a black ram – often depicted as a familiar of Satan – and claiming it speaks to them.
One day, a crone in red steals baby Sam and vanishes into the woods. You don’t want to know what happens then; suffice to say, the next scene removes any idea that the film’s title may be a metaphor. But if witches exist – and this family from 350 years ago doesn’t need convincing – how can we know which of us has been corrupted?
Writer-director Robert Eggers explains in a title card that he has borrowed ideas and even dialogue from folklore about witches, whether in fairy stories or real 17th-century trials. The film works as a grim historical document, but it might also be a metaphor for our own society: Instead of banding together to solve problems and protect each other, we disintegrate into unfounded accusations and blame-passing.
Sometimes Eggers lets his points remain obscure. When Caleb looks lustfully at his older sister, are we to assume he’s behaving normally for someone his age who’s completely removed from other girls? Is she “bewitching” him, either by the innocent or wicked meanings of that word? Could she be possessed without knowing it?
Does religious fanaticism make one stronger against evil or weaker, because prayer becomes one’s only weapon? We sympathize with every member of this family, down to the terrified twin brats, but they’re especially ill-equipped to face what lives in the woods surrounding them.
With his deep voice and mournful face, Ineson (familiar from Harry Potter movies) makes a believable character out of misguided William. The others all provide strong support, with Taylor-Joy especially apt as a teen with ambiguous motives.
Jarin Blaschke deserves special praise for his cinematography, shooting in dim light and thick woods and providing an atmosphere of unrelieved but varying gloom. Nature, seen through his pessimistic lens, holds nothing but the promise of misery.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickey, Harvey Scrimshaw.
Writer-Director: Robert Eggers.
Length: 93 minutes.
Rating: R (disturbing violent content and graphic nudity).