"What went we out into this wilderness to find?"
That's the opening line to Robert Eggers' 2015 dread-filled spell of a film, The Witch. It's a bold move to open with a question, and Eggers backs it up with almost a challenge to the audience. The Witch is a movie that bends reality and defies expectation. Eggers, with that opening question, doesn't just allow his character to address a court that will exile him. He also addresses his audience, and horror fans, and asks them about what they're expecting. And with a wicked grin, and a sense of place that hasn't been rivaled since Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, he gives us something else.
The plot follows a family in 1630s America as they are exiled from a colony and carve a life out of the wilderness. Immediately, things start to fall apart as the unforgiving woods and supernatural forces start to prey on the family's children, their crops, and their faith.
That's what The Witch does. It preys on your faith, more than anything else. The sound design and the score are mercilessly pulling the tension of the film to elastic levels of dread. The way the landscape and trees surrounding the family's homestead seem to crawl towards them fill you with the unconscious feeling that humanity wasn't supposed to be there. The family, and we, by extension, are trespassing. And we will be punished.
Of course a film as intensely focused on atmosphere and realism as this one would be wasted without a convincing cast. Thankfully, Eggers found the perfect answer for that problem, presumably with the help of a time machine. The family consists of a father, William (played by Ralph Ineson), a mother, Katherine (played by Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (played by Anna Taylor-Joy), eldest son, Caleb (played by Harvey Scrimshaw), and the twins Mercy and Jonas (played by Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson). This family writhes and resists the dread and isolation of the mysterious woods with a grounded realism that the depth of the screen and pulls you into their world.
Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson speak with the antiquated period dialogue (most of it compiled from primary sources of the time period by Robert Eggers) with a conviction and confidence that totally sells it. Ineson has a voice that doesn't make sense in today's world. It seems built exclusively for reading the King James Bible and lamenting the sins of man. Imagining him calling the bank or ordering a pizza doesn't compute. It short circuits the brain. Dickie has a face and manner that only suit period pieces, a trait which serves her well in HBO's Game of Thrones. Their seemingly effortless adoption of a centuries old way of life is an astounding feat, matched only by the mammoth talents of the child actors that fill out the rest of the family.
The twins dive into the unnerving and unsettling qualities we all find in twins: their capacity for speaking in unison, their penchant for dancing, and their worship of a black billy goat named Black Phillip. Most of the power of the film, however, lies with the two eldest children, Thomasin and Caleb.
Anna Taylor-Joy quickly becomes the center of the film, and, as I said in my review for Split, manages to speak entire story arcs onto the screen with nothing but her eyes and lips and subtle manipulations of body and face. Her character, Thomasin, stands in opposition to the oppressive spirits of her home and parents, and feels the terrifying and unsettling call of the woods as events of the film further pull the family apart. There is so much silence in The Witch, and Anna Taylor-Joy slices that silence into ribbons and dances through the film with them.
Conversely, Harvey Scrimshaw's portrayal of Caleb is loud and physically unforgiving. Every step and gesture is loaded with the uncertainty of childhood, of knowing that parents are to be trusted and obeyed, even when they fail. Caleb is a character built out of panic and fear and confusion, including several moments of borderline incestual interest in his sister Thomasin. Every member of the family reacts to the woods and the witch in their own way.
And that brings me to it, the witch in The Witch. Rather than flirt with and dance around the film's themes of suspicion and witchcraft and the dangers of belief, Eggers wastes no time pulling the audience's throat out. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film's entire ninety-two minute runtime, the witch is shown to the audience, bathed in shadows, grinding a baby into jelly for its broomstick. That's a spoiler, but only if the film offers nothing else, but it does...it offers so much more.
Any paranormal movie that eliminates the easy fodder of suspicion vs. belief so quickly has my respect. This opens the film up to larger and more inventive themes of faith and danger and temptation and the malleable nature of evil. Eggers summons all of his directorial talent and all the forces of production design to chisel an entire horrific, mythic world out of the wilderness and populate with realistic characters. Most interestingly, however, is how contained the mood and horror are. They pull you into a smaller world built to invite you, rather than sprawling to envelop you. The film feels like a macabre and sinister snow globe, and to touch it is to be suddenly trapped inside. Eggers uses the setting and nature to cast his boldest illusions, creating almost sensual violence out of tight close-ups on a rabbit, or tracking shots of a billy goat.
Speaking, briefly and tangentially, about the billy goat, that might be the single greatest casting decision Eggers and his production team made with The Witch. The goat they chose to play Black Phillip deserves an Oscar for its seemingly innate ability to, against all evidence of nature, act and convey chilling tone and emotion. Black Phillip, with his horns and leaping ability, might just be the new horror icon we've been waiting for. This goat will gleefully trot into his rightful place alongside Freddy, Jason, and Pinhead as a recognizable and exciting figure in horror cinema. My word, what a goat. Greatest of All Time, honestly.
The world of The Witch, even without the witches that dance in its shadows, seems scary and psychologically damaging enough. The harsh naturalism and themes of natural evil invoke Lars Von Trier's Antichrist and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The characters, when set against the world, are unnaturally sized. They are shown in torturous close-up or dehumanizing wide-shot.
Eggers offers us a surprise with The Witch. A small, three and a half million dollar, budget and painstaking sound design build dread out of nothing and build operatic trauma out of a character's sideways glance. Fans expecting something with jump scares or gore will be disappointed by The Witch, and will, in turn, miss out on one of the most skin-crawling and chillingly stark horror films of recent memory.
Eggers asks, in the film's opening, what we came to the movie for, and, courageously, gives us something we didn't expect and, frankly, didn't deserve.
He gave us cinematic magic.
Or rather, cinematic witchraft.