A lot of hype has surrounded The Witch. Robert Eggers’ first feature as director won the directing award category at Sundance Film Festival and has been compared to The Shinning, The Crucible and The Exorcist.
Set in New England, 1630, The Witch focuses on a puritan family who live a devout Christian life. The family is not who they seem though; they are trialed and exiled of their former community for reasons the narrative never chooses to explain. Now, they live in a rural house in the woods. After the main protagonist Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing with baby Sam, the baby mysteriously disappears. The family, besides her grizzled father (Ralph Ineson), is soon plagued with suspicion and doubt.
Artistically speaking, The Witch knows how it wants to look. The camera work follows individual subjects from behind, creating tension and naturally suiting their subjective pathways within the narrative. The colours also emphasise the drab and daily struggle of the family’s life. But then, the film is unnatural. Scenes will confidently cut to black, while sound effects, when not woodsy, are comprised of high-pitched, violin shrills – very James Wan-esque.
The Witch is a really dramatic but minimal experience, a film that seems self-conscious about how it should look, rather than focusing on what’s best for the atmosphere. It’s a contradiction that is as unlikeable as it is confusing.
Although the narrative is straightforward in ideas, using old English language perhaps wasn’t the best idea. It is hard to understand the formalities, making it almost impossible to connect to these characters. Like deciphering Shakespeare for the first time, it takes time. If deciphered wrong, with the wrong emphasis, then its just kills the purpose. Using this language with modern camera work and minimalistic stylings simply didn’t gel. I understand it can be interesting in an accessible sense, like Baz Luhrmann has perfected, however, The Witch struggled with trialing out these ideas and then cramming them into a 90-minute structure.
At first, yes, The Witch is promising. The narrative explores the family, their faith and their bleak mood. But then the last part really hammers in the horror. The final sequence of events is rushed and quite gruesome, sticking out against the dry prelude.
It is a shame that The Witch isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Generally speaking, occult narratives are great and can be very interesting when put in historical context. When done right, they can really show the contradictories and perceptions we have with women and witchcraft. A beautiful example of this is in the fluidity of Benjamin Christensen’s very important 1922 fictional doco Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, as opposed to say, Michael Reeves’ more sadistic and exploitative 1968 picture Witchfinder General.
In fairness, The Witch is nuanced in its depiction of women historically. There is no misogynistic violence, nor is the narrative interested in damning anyone. Of course, there are still some stereotypes, such as the old hag and the temptress figure, but they are delicately presented and do not suggest only these two perceptions of women exist. However, it’s this sort of sitting on the bench that also works against it. The Witch tackles interesting themes, uses ambiguity well and concludes in satisfying fashion. However, when it comes to overall effect, its subdued tones make the film a bit lacklustre.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10