By Blake Nelson
“The Witch” described in one word is atmosphere. The film drips a dark, brooding and maligned tone, in the best possible way.
Beyond the anxiety and the gripping tension on the screen it seemed as if something was lacking — many an audience member walked out of the screening that I attended, and I heard similar accounts from other people who had seen the movie as well. What was lacking were the jump scares, the boring supernatural plot and the gratuitous use of “Paranormal Activity” style movie making.
“The Witch,” in comparison to what everyone was expecting, is a contemplative movie about delirium in the 1600s. Based largely on transcripts from the period, the film places the viewer into the harsh reality of the 17th century.
With the opening scene, the movie presents the Christian overtones of the story with a church counsel expelling the main characters from the settlement. The family leaves and settles in a clearing miles from the settlement, praying before the land, then cutting to years later.
The protagonist throughout, Thomasin, played by relatively unknown actor Anya Taylor-Joy, is introduced carrying her infant brother who is subsequently stolen by a witch, introducing the anxiety into the story abruptly.
What follows is a series of escalating instances of religious fanaticism married with equal parts threat and terror.
Every subsequent scene brings more tension between a family that is slowly tearing itself apart. The viewer has to bear through constant bickering and growing distrust among them even though they only have each other to rely on.
The family relations in the film act as the main conflict, another point that most probably weren’t expecting. As the pressure rises due to crop failure and continual calamities, the family becomes less and less familial, with member perceiving the next to be a threat to its very existence.
A scene that is quite haunting is one in which one of the children goes missing and comes back seemingly possessed. The writhing and screams of the child, with frantic praying by the rest of the family, was hard to watch due to the stellar performances by all the actors in the scene, including the children actors.
I was pleasantly surprised by the unfamiliar cast that director Robert Eggers had assembled; they were incredibly convincing, and the audience’s unfamiliarity with them really helped pull them into the film.
Yet another thing the film does well is not use cheap gimmicks like shaky camera techniques to make the film more immersive. Rather, the film beautifully sets up an atmosphere that is wholly of the time period, using early modern English and clothing styles of the era, making the viewer more liable to accept the reality of the film.
Neither does the film use jumps or overt tension-building music; the immersiveness of the film is all in the acting, the camera shots and lugubrious lighting.
What the viewer is left with after stripping away all of this is a slow-burning film with little in the way of scares, but with a lot to offer in the realm of horror. “The Witch” is an aberration from the slag that Hollywood has been producing, kind of in the vein of 2015’s “It Follows,” and breath of fresh air in the sea of found-footage rehashings of “The Blair Witch Project.”
As the film mounts an enigmatic climax, it fuses the supernatural aspects with the complete delirium that the family fell into. The end of the film will leave you with questions, a few answers and a sort of sour catharsis. Although the film ends in an unusual fashion, it satisfies more than most would probably expect.
Blake Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @b_e_nelson.