Without initially identifying its time or place, The Witch immediately establishes a tense atmosphere.
William (Ralph Ineson) has a fiery argument with the leadership of a religious commune and is banished / walks out with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and five children. Soon they have found a new home at the mouth of a gloomy forest. Ah, paradise!
Not quite, especially after oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) plays a game with the infant youngest child, who suddenly disappears with no explanation. The family is sent into a panic, understandably, a mood that is further exacerbated when the twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) recklessly accuse Thomasin of being a witch.
The accusation appears to be based on Thomasin’s dark pretense of pretending to be a witch when Mercy disturbs a moment of tranquility between Thomasin and next oldest child Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). It’s the kind of unthinking act that’s extremely common between siblings, a mean gesture that’s not meant to be taken seriously — at least, not for more than a few moments.
Yet it’s a measure of the family’s unsettled condition that everything that anyone does contributes to the unease that slowly permeates everything. It’s not that the movie is overtly frightening; it’s more that an unnatural spirit seeps into the ligaments of the narrative and eats away at its structure.
The family members start to tear each other apart, especially after another child goes missing. They are their own universe, and nothing can keep them together, not even the strong religious beliefs held by William and Katherine. Her faith in God doesn’t help Katherine, and perhaps it’s that recognition that crumples her spirit.
William remains strident and firm in his religious beliefs, which, if nothing else, gives him something to hang onto in the face of his disintegrating family. Really, because they are living some distance away from the nearest town, all they have is each other. Once the shared anchor of their spirituality is attacked, though, they have nothing to defend themselves against the supernatural forces that appear to be invading their innermost places.
The original screenplay by Robert Eggers is filled with period dialogue that is not always easy to understand, a combination of the unfamiliar vocabulary and heavy accents that blur the distance between England and America. As a director, Eggers avoids imposing too much structure; clearly, the movie is moving toward an inevitable conclusion, but there are more than sufficient turns and twists to keep things off-balance.
Eerie, nerve-jangling, and profoundly unsettling, The Witch is a fresh take on supernatural horror.
The film opens today in theaters throughout Dallas.