“This wilderness will not consume us,” says William (Ralph Ineson) to his family as they set out to make a home for themselves just outside a massive forest in the horror film The Witch.
Set in New England in the year 1630, 60+ plus years before the Salem Witch Trials, William and his family are banned from the safety and security of the community they live in by the elders of the town for William’s willful breaking of the communal laws and his personnel interpretation of religious law. The family travels far to an open wilderness and sets up home not far from an imposing dark forest.
When the oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is playing peek-a-boo with the infant son, Samuel, he suddenly vanishes and is never found. This marks the beginning of strange and mysterious events that happen to the family. Their crops fail, the black buck goat becomes hostile toward the father, a certain little rabbit seems to always be taunting the family from the woods, and the father’s rifle backfires while hunting.
One night when William and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), are arguing over going back to the commune, William suggests they send Thomasin – who Katherine blames for the loss of her newborn son – away to serve a family as a live-in servant. Both Thomasin and her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) overhear this and become concerned. Early the next morning, Caleb gets ready to set off into the woods to try to catch enough game to feed the family so Thomasin won’t have to leave. Thomasin catches him before he can leave and threatens to wake their parents unless he lets her go with him. While hunting in the woods, the only horse they have gets spooked, throws Thomasin off and runs away while Caleb is far ahead chasing the cunning rabbit deeper into the forest. Night falls and Thomasin is finally found by her father who’s been looking for both of them since he discovered they were gone. Thomasin doesn’t want to reveal why she and Caleb went into the forest because she promised him she wouldn’t. Katherine becomes more and more angry with Thomasin, blaming her for both Caleb and her baby boy gone missing. Caleb shows up at the cabin the next night in the pouring rain, half naked. His family tries to tend to him but it soon becomes clear he’s not just suffering from being exposed to the elements but that he’s possessed by something evil. Soon, Katherine, William, and their twin children become more convinced that Thomasin cursed her family and is indeed a witch.
Dark, disturbing, and eerie, The Witch is a gothic thriller with solid cinematography and some good performances, but it falls short in delivering any real scares. For his first outing writer/director Robert Eggers captures wonderfully the look and feel of rural New England in 1630 and the Puritan way of life. The massive forest where Eggers shot the film effectively provides a foreboding and menacing atmosphere.
Newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy delivers an impressive performance as Thomasin, the oldest child who slowly begins to lose the trust and love of her family (except her brother Caleb) as they begin to believe she’s the cause of all their misfortune. The despair she conveys as she begins to fear her loved ones is powerful.
Harvey Scrimshaw also turns in an impressive performance as Caleb, Thomasin’s brother who doesn’t want his family to send his sister away and becomes determined to rise up and become the main provider for the family. The closeness the two siblings share is both sweet and awkward, with Caleb noticing his sister as a young woman. The two are protective of each other and the actors have chemistry on screen. Scrimshaw really shines in The Witch, and when Caleb comes back from the woods possessed by an evil entity he’s both creepy and sympathetic as the family hovers around him and prays.
The biggest problem with The Witch is that although it’s eerie there aren’t any really scary or suspenseful moments. Sorry, but scenes of a black goat staring at the father or the little fuzzy rabbit chewing and staring at Caleb aren’t that scary and don’t cause goosebumps. The film does have a truly disturbing scene right after the newborn son goes missing that conveys the infant’s fate, a scene so disturbing it is likely to cause some moviegoers to leave the theater. However, the movie drags in the middle, with the search for Caleb becoming tedious and the family turning on Thomasin predictable.
Menacing and creepy, The Witch is sure to disturb and possibly bother its audience but not truly frighten them.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Date: February 19, 2016