The Witch is Robert Egger’s directorial debut and like The Babadook and It Follows, two films which were also the directorial debuts of their directors (Jennifer Kent and David Robert Mitchell, respectively), The Witch uses the guise of the horror genre in order to discuss certain themes; particularly, the role of religion in relation to one’s way of life, and the consequences of coming into one’s womanhood. Eggers also wrote the script but just because he uses the tropes of horror films in order to get at an underlying discussion doesn’t mean that The Witch isn’t scary. Even for the seasoned horror veteran, The Witch has something to offer in terms of its horror atmosphere. Eggers’ world-building and camerawork are absolutely meticulous (I’d imagine if Robert Bresson ever wanted to scare his audience, this is how he would do it), and the result is that the film takes on the appearance of something always being a bit askew and why wouldn’t it be? When the devil is at your doorstep even the act of shucking corn is terrifying.
The story takes place in the 17th century and begins with William (Ralph Ineson) and his family facing trial and consequently banishment due to the family’s religious beliefs conflicting with the village’s own. Sensibly, William decides to settle away from the village but unfortunately the edge of the forest where the family does relocate to makes them neighbors to a witch dwelling within the wilderness. The terror for the family begins when one day Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest daughter, loses her infant brother while playing a game of peek-a-boo. How? In the split second that Thomasin closes her eyes, the baby is snatched by the witch (Bathsheba Garnett). A conventional horror film might have focused on a plot involving the witch slowly killing each family member but what Eggers decides to do instead is focus the story on the breakdown and dissolution of the family’s moral and religious beliefs.
The first question I asked while watching the film was whether or not the witch’s tormenting of the family was a form of punishment for their change of beliefs or if it was simply coincidence that they changed their beliefs while also relocating into a witch’s domain? I’d argue that it’s the latter, but I don’t see the story as being contrived due their untimely fate being a cause of coincidence. I’d argue so because there’s an element of Ingmar Bergman in the film in that God seems to be silent. No matter how fervently the family prays, the witch still runs afoot, and I think it’s because what she preys on (pun unintended) isn’t their lack of belief but rather their human weaknesses; their vanity, their lust and so on.
Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the oldest son, even comments on the nature of punishment after the death of his infant brother: “Was Samuel born a sinner…what wickedness hath he done,” and when William attempts to end the conversation there, it only spurs Caleb to continuously ask, “Why?” Despite being so young, Caleb seems to understand that the witch is operating outside the realm of their beliefs, and the death of his infant brother from such a cause begins to shake his religious ideals which consequently causes a fracture within the family that only deepens as the film progresses.
That fracture within the family first seems to begin with the developing maturation of Thomasin’s body. Caleb who is also dealing with his own puberty often steals glances at Thomasin’s cleavage, and it’s clear that he believes himself to be sinful for doing so. Yet, Caleb’s guilt is one that is self-inflicted whereas Thomasin is made to be shamed for something she cannot control. At one point, her mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) calls her a slut further reinforcing the idea that sexual maturation is a sin. In The Witch to come into one’s womanhood is to also come into a world of a constant male-gaze and unreasonable shame.
Jarin Blaschke serves as director of photography, and I must commend him for the camerawork that he and Eggers have achieved here. Specifically, the framing in The Witch is absolutely incredible because of how Blaschke uses it to heighten a scene’s emotional tone and it’s just done so well consistently. What I see Blaschke doing with the framing is using it as a punctuation to certain moments of dialogue before freezing the frame in such a way that the subjects of the composition seem to have the threat of devouring the audience with its sheer physicality, although The Witch is more than just terrifying. Blaschke’s camera is equally capable of capturing—and it does—grace and beauty, such as a mid-shot early on of Thomasin praying; Blaschke endows a sense of purity into the scene through his use of depth of field: dressed all in white, Thomasin is made the sole focus of the frame while the background is out of focus.
The Witch is one of those rare films that just strikes all the right chords. Eggers avoids making a typical genre film by way using the horror genre as a gateway into a more complex film but in no way is The Witch not a horror film. The camerawork is used to evoke a sense of constant dread and at times, surprisingly elegance. Of course, I’m writing all this while on the thrill of just having seen the film so there’s a danger of memory making things better than they are, but I am confident in my belief of this film. If not, I’ll pull a Herzog and eat my own shoe.