The Witch is a must-see for horror fans, but its shock value may prove too disturbing for everyone else.
The Witch forces those who watch it to think deeply about what newcomer Robert Eggers is trying to say about 17th century New England. And many people will bicker over which conclusion they think their fellow moviegoers should arrive at after seeing it.
Luckily, my favorite thing about The Witch is how exciting it is to talk about it, and there’s much to discuss. Set decades before the infamous Salem Witch Trials, The Witch is a folk tale about a budding family that is banished from their Puritan plantation and forced to build a farm in the wilderness from the ground up.
These devout Christians, led by patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), are strictly religious with their five children, especially when one goes missing early on. Haunted by a “witch of the wood,” and perhaps each other, the dysfunctional family experiences a haunting unlike most offerings you’d expect from this genre.
For one thing, there’s little left to the imagination when it comes to the film’s own paranormal threats, and it crosses disturbing territory that will be hard to watch for some casual horror fans. But they’ll certainly delight in the artistically frightening ambience of the crisp pilgrim farm, a ghastly soundtrack on par with last year's It Follows, and beautiful scenery reminiscent of The Village.
What’s more interesting, however, is the film’s spiritual (or non-spiritual) message, as well as all of the unique takeaways that will be had by differing ideologies. Satanists have already praised this movie for coming across as “pro-witchcraft” due to the way the film ends, while theologists simultaneously praise the film for addressing the true dangers of said witchcraft.
Yet the actual pagan mysteries of The Witch come across as something outside the realm of Satanist beliefs and the polytheism of witchcraft. Almost as if Eggers is trying to get it across that The Witch is a folk tale (which is stated in the pre-credits), not a retelling of true events.
Eggers does, however, claim that much of the dialogue and story is derived from a collection of true events based on journals. And he manages to also bring out revelatory performances out of his child actors, of whom I’ll single out Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw.
Is it a cautionary tale about the demonic forces hidden in plain sight? Or is it instead criticizing religious overreach, and how it can be the origin of the very darkness theologists fear? Some will argue it’s a little of both, and balance is truly the virtue we can derive from The Witch. For now, I doubt there needs to be a right answer.
The Witch a good horror film with great performances and pleasant scenery. Its scariest moments will bring on disturbing nightmares and provoke the right kinds of conversations, but the movie also suffers a bit from an over-indulgence of shock value that will alienate more people than it will engage.
A lot of people will like this movie, especially hardcore horror fans. But if you don’t care much for scary movies or even this subject material (akin to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible), then The Witch probably won’t change your mind.
A version of this review was originally posted on jonnegroni.com